Candidates in the 1st Legislative District are trading accusations that a tactic common in high-stakes races has come to rural Cape May and Cumberland counties.

Republicans last month claimed that Democrats had hired trackers - low-level campaign staff armed with cheap video cameras - to attend events in hopes of catching a gotcha moment suitable for the Internet. In response, Democrats said Republicans did much the same to them the last election.

Welcome to the new YouTube reality of campaign trackers.

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Candidates have always sought to dig up dirt on opposing candidates, even if they try to distance themselves from the actual digging. This tactic, called "opposition research," once involved some gumshoe pawing through reams of obscure government documents in hopes of finding a savory nugget.

But that's changed in recent years because of the advent of cheap, discreet, portable electronics coupled with inexpensive memory cards and batteries that hold a charge for hours and hours.

This constant surveillance, or the threat of it, may make a candidate cautious and limit potential interaction with the voters, said Daniel J. Douglas, the director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College.

This tracking has gone on for about 20 years at the national level, he said, but now that it "has percolated down to legislative races and it's relatively easy to do … it makes it attractive to look for the gotcha moment."

It costs very little now to hand iPhones to unpaid interns and send them out to their opponents' speeches and rallies, silently taping. It can be tedious work, but it can produce explosive results.

In 2006, former Virginia U.S. Sen. George Allen, a Republican, attracted unwelcome attention when he singled out tracker S.R. Sidarth at an event, calling the dark-skinned Democratic volunteer "Macaca."

When Allen narrowly lost to Democrat Jim Webb, the video was widely credited with helping sink Allen's chances.

Since then, video tracking has spread widely.

James "Sonny" McCullough recalled seeing trackers in 2007 when he unsuccessfully ran for re-election to the state Senate in the 2nd Legislative District in one of the state's most closely watched elections. Trackers followed him to events where he spoke, even though McCullough said they didn't rattle him.

"It's win-at-all costs at that level, and quite frankly, to me, it's somewhat disappointing, some of their strategies (that political strategists) use," said McCullough, the longtime Republican mayor of Egg Harbor Township.

Frank Mahoney, who has worked for Democratic state Sen. Jim Whelan's 2nd District campaigns, said he recalled in 2008 when members of the New Jersey Education Association held a coordinated protest outside Whelan's and other legislators' local offices.

The Republican tracker followed a familiar routine, Mahoney said. "They just get a spot as close as possible and just tape and tape until (the candidate) says anything."

Mahoney said that throughout the 2011 state Senate campaign, both Whelan and Republican candidate Vince Polistina hewed close to message while the cameras relentlessly rolled.

"(Trackers) didn't get anything on them. That was just effort and time wasted, and it could have been time spent knocking on doors or time spent making phone calls to get votes," Mahoney said.

The phenomenon of the always-on campaign hasn't reached down to municipal races - yet. "I don't know if anybody has the time or the energy to do that," said Michael Suleiman, the Democratic chairman of Galloway Township. "It's a little too time-consuming for us."

But trackers seem to be here to stay, at least in local state legislative races, even if it takes time. Mahoney pointed to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's caught-on-tape musings about the "47 percent" that depended on government assistance.

A campaign tracker didn't provide that, but the effect was critical.

"When they got that '47 percent' quote, it really affected them," Mahoney said. "I think if they can get it, it can work."

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