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New Political Fear: Gaffes on YouTube

By Tom Bevan

The race for president is still in the early stages, but already the campaign trail is strewn with enough gaffes and outbreaks of "foot-in-mouth" that we might have to call in the Centers for Disease Control. This week we can add two more to the list:

* Speaking before a Jewish group in Washington, D.C., on Monday, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson remarked that making money is "part of the Jewish tradition." Thompson later apologized for the comment, blaming the slipup on fatigue brought on by a cold.

* On Tuesday at a rally in Milwaukee, Sen. Barack Obama compared the violence perpetrated against the victims in the Virginia Tech massacre to "different" kinds of violence in the United States, including the "verbal violence" of Don Imus and "the violence of men and women who have worked all their lives and suddenly have the rug pulled out from under them because their job is moved to another country."

These blunders come on the heels of Mitt Romney telling New Hampshire voters he was a "lifelong hunter" when in fact he's only been hunting twice in his life, Rudy Giuliani saying he'd let his wife sit in on Cabinet meetings and John McCain needing a full military escort for a shopping trip to a Baghdad marketplace and then pronouncing the streets of the Iraqi capital safe. And who can forget the cringe-inducing accent Hillary Clinton put on to recite a freedom hymn before an African-American audience last month in Selma, Ala.?

So what's up with all the mistakes? In part they're a function of the sheer size of the field -- 18 candidates are in the race with the real possibility of one or two more joining the fray in the near future -- most of whom have no experience running at the national level.

Another reason is that the top-tier candidates on both sides -- even experienced ones such as McCain and Edwards -- continue to suffer occasionally from either a lack of discipline, bad political instincts or a combination of the two.

But the biggest reason is the unprecedented scrutiny these candidates are enduring in the new media age. In the same way the technology behind HDTV has made the picture on our television screens so clear we can now see the tiniest details, so does technology magnify every mistake by the current group of presidential hopefuls.

It used to be a candidate could get by with sloppy language, a silly remark or a contradictory statement every now and then. Not any more. Today every utterance, no matter how small or insignificant, finds its way into the media bloodstream.

And now, thanks to sites such as YouTube and Liveleak, candidates must deal not only with comments or gaffes they're making today but also all the ones they may have made in the past as well. In particular, McCain, Giuliani and Romney have been confronted with video clips of themselves -- in some cases nearly two decades old -- articulating positions they're forced to defend today.

How bad has it gotten? A few weeks ago Romney told me during an interview that he has a recurring dream -- more of a nightmare, really -- of getting in a yelling match with a random person only to find the whole episode posted on YouTube the next day.

Nightmare or not, candidates have to get used to the HD-effect of the current campaign because not only is it not going away -- it could get worse.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email:

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