Campaigning on the Blogs

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House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is one of the many Washington politicians trying to adapt to the world of blogs. Last month, she went on the liberal blog Daily Kos to tell readers about her resolution calling for congressional investigations into GOP lawmakers' connections with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The liberal blogs love politicians like Pelosi who are feisty and aggressive, so the visit to Daily Kos, which gets more than 500,000 visitors a day, seemed likely to win her new fans.

But blogs also prefer their guests to engage in conversations. So when Pelosi posted on Daily Kos and then didnít respond to any of the hundreds of comments users made in response — instead returning to her day job of leading the 201 Democrats in House — one Daily Kos user accused her of "hit and run diaries," while another griped: "Daily Kos is not your personal press release piggybank." The next day, she returned to the blog to try to explain herself. "I donít have the kind of schedule that allows me to respond to every comment," Pelosi wrote, "but I will a delegate a staffer on my future posts to answer your questions."

The importance of political blogs is not new. Howard Dean's presidential campaign relied heavily on Internet supporters, and by the summer of 2004 both political parties were inviting bloggers to their nominating conventions. But politicians are now wooing the bloggers harder than ever. Much of the activity has been on the Democratic side, since pols on Capitol Hill see the blogs as a liberal media rival to conservative talk radio and potential 2008 candidates recognize left-wing blogs could prove a powerful force in the Democratic primaries. "Itís only been in the past couple of years that I started to fully appreciate the power of whatís going on in the blogosphere," says former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, a likely Democratic presidential candidate in 2008. "These changes are coming and we can either fight them or embrace them." Warner has begun calling bloggers in Iowa, the site of the first presidential caucuses — among them Chris Woods, who writes for a site called politicalforecast.net.

But the enthusiasm for blogs crosses party lines. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy last year started holding conference calls in which they allow liberal bloggers to air complaints and offer suggestions on issues. Top Senate and House Republican leaders invite influential conservative bloggers to the Capitol, where they can ask the members questions. Republican Bill Frist, another potential 2008 candidate, has talked to the bloggers who run powerlineblog and instapundit, two big conservative sites. John Edwards had a group of about 10 key bloggers to his home for a dinner last year. Warner, Reid and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, another potential 2008 candidate, will all head in June to Yearly Kos, a convention Daily Kos is organizing in Las Vegas.

The embrace of the blogs has helped spawn a new kind a staffer on Capitol Hill: the Internet outreach specialist. In Reidís office, Ari Rabin-Havt, 27, who worked for Moveon.org and on the Internet team for John Kerryís presidential campaign, spends his entire day reading blogs, responding to hundreds of e-mails from bloggers and figuring out how to get stories favorable to Senate Democrats onto the blogs. The relationship is helpful for both sides; Rabin-Havt will feed documents on key issues to the bloggers, which they like because it helps them post faster, and the close contact helps politicians head off some negative stories before they surface on the blogs.

Jack Kingston, a GOP congressman from Georgia who is one of only a few in his party who blogs regularly, works closely on his posts and his podcasts with blog-savvy press spokesman David All, 27. "My strong recommendation for anybody who is getting on the information highway is to to have a co-pilot who is 25 years old or younger," says Kingston.

Several of the potential presidential contenders have already hired staffers to help them connect with the online world. Warner now spends one hour each week with his blog advisor, a prominent liberal blogger named Jerome Armstrong. After Pelosi was bashed for not sticking around to answer questions on Daily Kos, Warnerís team helped him avoid making the same mistake: after Warner posted on Daily Kos and left for a trip to Iowa, one of his online staffers, Nate Wilcox, stayed around to respond to questions. (Some people still wanted to hear more from the candidate himself. "The comments were valid criticisms," says Warner. "Youíre supposed to interact in real time.") Vilsack has hired Kevin Thurman, a 26-year-old Internet consultant, to help him meet with bloggers on education, an issue the governor is keenly interested in. A Frist staffer named Stephen Smith, 24, meets regularly with the Republican Senator and keeps him updated on what the blogs are talking about and helps Frist record his podcasts.

Much of this outreach is reminiscent of the famous Lyndon Johnson quote about then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover: "itís probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in." The politicians hope that by developing a close relationship with like-minded blogs, the bloggers will feel more like part of the team and will temper their criticism. But even friendly blogs aren't easy to satisfy — as Pelosi found out after her Daily Kos encounter. Democratic aides complain that Matt Stoller, a blogger for mydd.com, another popular liberal site, never seems satisfied Democrats are being tough enough. "I donít think weíre well-liked, necessarily," Stoller said. Bloggers often complain, moreover, about being spoon-fed information they could just as easily get on a senator's website. After Senate Republican leaders held a press conference for bloggers in March, a post on the website of the conservative magazine Human Events complained that "dumping a bunch of talking points on me only makes me angry. Iím not a flack for the GOP."

The relationship will always be complicated. Warner notes that Iowa bloggers are occasionally wary of him, wondering if "we are being manipulated" by a candidate reaching out to them. "People [on the Internet] kind of look at things with jaundiced eyes," he says. "When youíre out campaigning and meeting people, people may think Ďgosh, that answer stinks,' but normally keep comments to themselves. In the blogosphere, you make a comment, thereís no compunction with people saying I disagree." But Warner, like many pols, says he'll keep trying to try to connect with the Internet constituency. "Youíve got to have a thick skin," he says.