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 http://www.allens-a-team.com 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."
But it is Feld's Virginia site, at http://www.raisingkaine.com , that has been at the center of blogging influence and of controversy.
A former federal employee with degrees in psychology and Middle East studies, Feld helped blog Kaine into office last year (thus the site's name) and runs a state political action committee that he said has been largely dormant since the end of the governor's race.
This year, Feld was one of several bloggers who launched online petitions to help persuade Webb to get into the race against Allen. Feld blogged furiously on behalf of Webb during his primary fight against Fairfax Democrat and lobbyist Harris Miller.
Shortly after Webb won the primary in June, Feld announced that he had been hired as Webb's "netroots coordinator." The campaign pays him $2,500 a month to help the Democrat interact with the online community. Feld's partner, Josh Chernila, is the campaign's grass-roots coordinator.
Both offer disclaimers that their opinions are their own, but they have continued to blog on Raising Kaine, using the site to launch sometimes blistering critiques of Allen and often going further than Webb's spokeswoman.
In recent posts, Feld has referred to Republicans as "rightwing crazies" and has changed the name of Allen's campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, to a locker room epithet.
Recently, Feld wrote about a picture that shows Allen standing next to a group of white men who allegedly belonged to a white supremacist group.
"Finally! I mean, seriously, how long does it take the supposedly 'mainstream media' to pick up on evidence that a man who wants to be President is a racist?" Feld wrote.
Asked whether she believes Allen is racist, Webb spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd said: "I don't know. You'll have to ask George Allen." Told about Feld's post, she added, "Well, you know, Lowell doesn't speak for the campaign."
Feld's online statements -- and the Webb campaign's attempts to distance itself -- have outraged conservatives who accuse Webb of illegally using the Raising Kaine site and its bloggers as a vehicle for election-year messages without officially reporting it as a 2006 campaign expense.
Dotson accused Feld and other liberal bloggers of making "huge misrepresentations" on their sites and said the Webb campaign should be held accountable.
"His campaign has been so inept that if he didn't have left-wing bloggers screaming at the top of their lungs, he wouldn't have a campaign," Dotson said.
On the Virginia Virtual Conservative blog, http://virtuconindustries.blogspot.com , Jim Riley penned an entry titled "Raising Kaine PAC in violation of Federal Election law."
Riley wrote: "The gang at Raising Kaine PAC better start looking around for a good Democrat federal election law attorney. Something tells me that they'll be needing one."
Feld said lawyers have told him neither he nor the campaign is doing anything wrong. "We're very confident. They've assured us time and again [that we] not only meet the letter of the law, but exceed it."
Federal election laws largely exempt blogging and other online activity from reporting requirements in much the same way that newspapers and television programs are free to comment without fear of government regulation.
In March, the Federal Election Commission issued rules that require campaigns to report when they buy banner ads on Web sites. But those same regulations appear to give bloggers such as Feld and Henke virtually unlimited freedom.
In documents accompanying the regulations, the FEC wrote, "The new rules exempt Internet activity by individuals acting both with and without the knowledge or consent of a candidate, authorized committee, or political party committee."
But Feld and Henke are testing the federal laws by claiming to be members of a campaign staff one moment and independent campaign bloggers the next.
What is clear, said political activists on the left and the right, is that campaigns such as the ones in Virginia are changing the way bloggers are perceived.
"Blogging is evolving," Feld said. "You are moving into the point where bloggers who before were making no money are starting to become more like professionals, like journalists and other campaign people."