Paid Bloggers Stoke Senate Battle in Va.

By Michael D. Shear and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 17, 2006

RICHMOND -- Virginia's U.S. Senate race has catapulted bloggers into the middle of electioneering and controversy as campaign supporters use their online forums to connect with voters, raise money and spread gossip.

Liberal bloggers -- two of whom are on the payroll of Democratic challenger James Webb -- fanned the flames last month after Sen. George Allen aimed a derogatory remark at a young Webb volunteer. That hype has helped Webb close a double-digit Allen lead in public polls and was a blow to the Republican senator's possible presidential bid in 2008.

The lack of an effective response from conservative bloggers has prompted Allen to hire a Virginia blogger as his "new media coordinator" to goose GOP supporters into action. And four of Virginia's most popular conservative bloggers launched last week to counter what they call liberal attacks.

Together, the Webb and Allen campaigns are transforming the image of the independent blogger, clicking away on his own dime from his basement. And they are pushing the boundaries of federal campaign finance laws as blogs that once were personal diaries have come to resemble full-blown campaign operations that don't have to be reported as expenses.

The goal of the paid bloggers, both campaigns say, is to deluge online political journals with positive tidbits about their candidate and draw attention to the most negative news about their opponent. The campaign bloggers sometimes write their own bits. Other times, they spread gossip generated by others.

"We just feel like if the left is going to run rampant, we have to respond in some way," said Chad Dotson, one of the new pro-Allen bloggers and the prosecutor in Wise County. "We decided enough is enough. It's something we should have done before."

Jon Henke, Allen's new blog guru, said he will try to do in the eight weeks until the Nov. 7 election what Democrats have been doing online for months in Virginia. "Our goal is to engage the blogosphere to get our message out," he said.

Bloggers first appeared on the national political scene in 2003 and 2004 during the presidential contest. Democratic candidate Howard Dean was the first to harness the energy from thousands of online journals, whose tiny readership is multiplied by the Internet's ability to link readers from one blog to the next.

They have made little splash in Maryland and the District. But in Virginia, bloggers have mushroomed into a political force to whom politicians cater. Last month, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) held a morning conference call just for political bloggers. Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) regularly does a "live blog" on several conservative Web sites.

And nowhere is their presence felt more than on the campaign trail in the Senate race.

"It does seem to have gone up another notch," said Lowell Feld, founder of Raising Kaine, a liberal blog whose monthly visits are on track to be more than 100,000, up from 15,000 in December.

Bloggers were all over last week's campaign developments as the two sides traded accusations about the candidates' views on women. The bloggers' posts often are over the top. One entry on the A-Team blog offered the following quote: "Who is more modern in their attitude towards women: the Taliban, or . . . Webb? Tough call."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company