In Blogs, an Early, Passionate Turnout

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006

The battle for the heart and soul of Virginia's Democratic Party -- and the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate -- is underway.

At least it is in the Democratic blogosphere, where passions are running high.

It began, oddly enough, at an event sponsored by Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), whose St. Patrick's Day fundraiser has become a must-visit event for many Fairfax Democrats.

That's where the two Senate candidates found themselves last week, canvassing for votes in a straw poll taken during the event. Former telecommunications lobbyist Harris Miller and former Navy secretary James Webb faced off in an early test.

A very early, and small, test: a straw poll at a Fairfax event where a few hundred highly motivated activists cast ballots before anyone goes to the polls in the June primary.

But that hasn't stopped the liberal bloggers from going crazy over the results.

"Jim Webb Crushes Harris Miller," screamed the headline written by Ben Tribbet on his Not Larry Sabato blog. "Harris Miller should withdraw."

As noted on that and many other blogs, Webb won the straw poll by 58 percent to 42 percent. Webb's communications director, Kristian Denny Todd , sent out an urgent e-mail to reporters moments after the results were tallied.

Over on the Raising Kaine blog, Lowell Feld -- an early and vocal supporter of Webb's who organized a petition drive to urge him to run -- was gaga over Webb's performance. A blog post about the event featured a picture of a startled-looking kitten.

"The Morning After: Last Night Was Truly Shocking," read the headline on Feld's post.

"It may have marked the beginning of a populist-progressive, 'Jacksonian Democratic' revolution in America, what may be seen in a few years from now as Virginia's 'shot heard 'round the world,' " Feld wrote in a post.

Even Feld admitted that that was over the top.

"A bit of hyperbole here?" he asked, hopefully rhetorically. "Perhaps a wee bit, but the St. Patrick's Day green beer -- not to mention the adrenaline rush from last night -- hasn't completely worn off yet, so forgive me."

If the pro-Webb people were somewhat full of bravado after the straw-poll win, the pro-Miller people on the blogs were not willing to give up without a fight.

In comments on Tribbet's blog, they defended their man, saying, essentially, that the straw poll was meaningless.

"What do I think will happen now?" asked an anonymous poster calling himself I Do Not Trust Webb. "Harris won't drop out. He will go to June 13 and beyond. I've never seen him quit. Will the Miller campaign turn negative? I hope not. But if they do, then so be it."

The same poster added: "This was a 'Fun' win for the Webb campaign, and they should enjoy it and milk it for what it is worth. However, this is just a straw poll at a campaign fundraiser for Connolly -- this is not a measurable snapshot of voter turnout on June 13."

And a woman named Jill on the Raising Kaine blog urged calm in the straw poll's aftermath.

"I would have to say that Webb loaded the room with friends and family -- he trotted a bunch of them on the stage with him! If I'm not mistaken he even thanked his ex-wife for coming."

What does this all mean for the real race between Webb and Miller?

As mentioned on some of the blogs, Webb's win has the potential to energize some of his staunchest supporters. (Though if the blogs are any evidence, they need a little less caffeine, not more.) It's true that Miller is from Fairfax County, so Connolly's party should have been an easy mark for his candidacy.

Beyond that, though, it's unclear who -- outside the tiny, online universe of liberal-leaning blogs -- is even paying attention.

In fact, for Miller or Webb to win the right to campaign against Sen. George Allen (R), each must gather Democratic votes from all over the state, not just in Connolly's back yard.

Miller, a millionaire, probably has the money edge in that contest. Webb has the star power. And both are being advised by seasoned pros who are masters at finding those votes. Webb has Steve Jarding and Dave "Mudcat" Saunders , who ran former Democratic governor Mark R. Warner's campaign. Miller has Mo Elleithee , who was campaign communications director for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).

The battles of the blogosphere are sure to continue. But look closely and you might find just a little bit of evidence that some online browsers are tired of the hyperbolic bickering.

From a poster calling himself Not Billy Bob Thornton: "I'm sick and tired already of you Webb people attacking Miller for being an 'insider' and you Miller people's criticism that Webb isn't 'Democrat' enough to meet your definition of a good Dem. This is just stupid." The poster concluded that both sides should grow up and get to work for their candidates.

My bet is that in the next three months, that's what will begin to happen.

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