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posted: 12/15/2011 5:00 AM

Tracking the elusive 'stealth candidate'

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The "stealth candidate."

It may not be a term you're intimately familiar with unless you cover elections for a living, and it may seem as counterintuitive to you as it does to us. Why, after all, would someone counting on every vote he or she can muster eschew public appearances and free media publicity?

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But they do -- and more often than you might think. DuPage Editor Jim Davis invoked the term with a sigh this week as editors discussed our progress in collecting email addresses, websites and other information to help voters stay in touch with candidates in the upcoming spring primaries. He noted that his staff had gathered all the pertinent information from most campaigns and was currently in the process of tracking down the "stealth candidates" so we can include them as well.

The most understandable explanation for a stealth campaign is probably also the most common -- simple naiveté. First-time candidates often just aren't familiar enough with the options available to them for connecting with voters or the urgency of being responsive to requests for information three months before Election Day.

Others are just plain hard to fathom. They don't return reporters' phone calls. They blow off meetings with newspaper editors. They don't appear at debates or meet-the-candidate events.

And it's not always the irrational strategy it may appear. In some small communities, a well-known local activist or business person may generate enough support informally among family, friends and local contacts to win election with a minimum of public attention. Some candidates have issues in their background they prefer not to have explored very deeply in a public campaign.

Some candidates, points out Renee Trappe, assistant managing editor for local news, may well be "ghosts," names added to a ballot solely to siphon votes away from others. Trappe remembers working obsessively years ago to identify a candidate who clearly did not want to be found. Eventually, the candidate's wife answered the telephone, only to say she didn't know her husband's cellphone number or email address. She promised to pass along the message, though -- "presuming," Trappe adds parenthetically, "she did know where he lived."

Democracy. Go figure.

But stories like that are by far the exception, and, in any case, we don't want you to have to go into the voting booth without access to at least some basic information about each candidate you'll face. So, our reporters and editors are now laying the groundwork for our coverage, which will begin in earnest shortly after the start of the new year.

If you happen to be -- or know -- one of those well-meaning novices, be aware that we're trying to find you, in particular to get your email address, and that the questionnaires and other information we'll be asking you for are indeed urgent. In the midst of the holiday frenzy, the March 20 primary may seem an age away, but in fact the campaigning and reporting will be running full tilt in just a couple of weeks.

If you happen to be one of those candidates with something hidden in your background that you'd just as soon voters not learn about, be aware that we'll be trying to learn as much as we can about you with or without your help.

And, most important, if you happen to be a committed voter, be aware that we're working now to put a face, platform and identity to every name you may see on your ballot. Even the "stealth candidates."

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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