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Online Venture Seeks To Elevate the Debate

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A group of political strategists who have spent years firing heavy artillery at each other came together at the Hay-Adams Hotel yesterday, put aside their weapons, decried the polarized state of debate in America and vowed a new approach to peaceful coexistence.

Toward that end, they are launching a Web site that they hope will eventually reach 30 million opinion leaders, elevate public discussion on matters from politics to sports to culture and, in the process, make them some money.

Mark McKinnon and Matthew Dowd, who were senior advisers in President Bush's last two campaigns, are joining forces with Joe Lockhart, who served as a spokesman for President Bill Clinton, and Carter Eskew, a top strategist in Al Gore's presidential campaign, in creating what they have dubbed HotSoup.com.

"There is nobody who knows how broken the system is more than us. . . . Everyone in the room could say they contributed to the polarization," Lockhart said.

"The perceived polarization that exists in this country today is not a good thing," said Dowd, adding that people are tired of watching "food fight" debates on television.

But HotSoup -- a name chosen to evoke a tasteful mixing of ingredients -- faces a substantial challenge in a cluttered online marketplace. The most popular political Web sites and blogs are fiercely partisan on both the left and the right, which is precisely what attracts their fans. McKinnon, Lockhart and their partners, who are investing their own money while seeking outside financing, say they will be a regular presence on the site but will not be exchanging partisan blows.

They have hired Ron Fournier, former chief political writer for the Associated Press, as editor in chief. A key consultant is Allie Savarino, an Internet advertising specialist and president of Sisterwoman.com.

Speaking with a group of skeptical reporters, the partners struggled to describe just what the site -- its debut is planned for October -- will be and how it will reach the target audience.

Dowd described the 10 percent of the public he terms "opinion drivers" as people teaching Bible class, coaching Little League or volunteering in soup kitchens -- and very interested in news. "We have a technology that can bring people back together in a town-hall format," he said.

At times, the strategists sounded as though they were doing penance for their roles in the 30-second attack ads and sound-bite skewering that have become staples in modern political campaigns. But they are not giving up their livelihood. McKinnon continues to represent political and corporate clients at Public Strategies. Dowd has his own consulting firm, and Lockhart, Eskew and two other HotSoup partners -- Michael Feldman and Chip Smith -- do the same at the Glover Park Group.

They envision a high-toned conversation on the site, buttressed by plenty of video and interactive message boards. But they had no ready answer for how to prevent the online debate from turning shrill and partisan. Savarino said users will be able to rank the quality of the postings, much like customer ratings on Amazon.com.

"The community will decide what issues are relevant," Lockhart said. "We didn't want this to be seen as a tug of war between left and right."

The partners say that they want to avoid an inside-the-Beltway focus and that some of those featured on HotSoup will be local community leaders. But they were not clear on how they would find these local folks, especially since participants will not be paid. What the venture hopes to emulate is the social networking appeal of such sites as MySpace.com, in part by including discussions of books and perhaps movies.

Attempts at building nonpartisan issue sites online have not been a smashing success. In 2000, former Clinton White House spokesman Mike McCurry teamed with such advisers as John H. Sununu, a chief of staff for President George H.W. Bush, and Tony Blankley, former spokesman for Newt Gingrich, in starting Grassroots.com. Today it is a low-profile site that works with a wide range of interest groups.

Dick Morris, a political consultant turned Fox News commentator, has a site called Vote.com on which users cast electronic ballots on various issues. It seems to draw mainly conservatives, such as the 89 percent who disagreed with the Supreme Court ruling that Bush overstepped his authority in ordering military tribunals for terrorism suspects.

Fournier, who just finished a book on the changing nature of public communication with Dowd and former Clinton aide Doug Sosnik, said the decline in trust of elite institutions gives HotSoup an opening.

"It used to be that Walter Cronkite could change the Vietnam War," he said. "People are now turning to each other for guidance on what to buy and how to vote. There's a gaping need to connect with other people."


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