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Major Front in Va. Race Is Online
Candidates Court Facebook, Blogs in New Political Era

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Terry McAuliffe's YouTube channel uploaded three new videos in the past week. Brian Moran has aggressively courted backing from a coterie of liberal bloggers in Northern Virginia. A Twitter addict, R. Creigh Deeds regularly fires off tweets from his BlackBerry.

The feverish online activity isn't limited to Democrats, who meet tonight in a debate co-sponsored by the news sites Huffington Post and Collegiate Times and the blogs Fire Dog Lake and Not Larry Sabato. Robert F. McDonnell, the lone Republican in the Virginia governor's race, has been all but inescapable online. Not only does his official Facebook page list more supporters than Deeds and Moran combined, but he also has been advertising on local and national conservative sites.

"In all the years that I've been watching Virginia politics, I've never seen this kind of action online -- and not just from voters but from candidates," said Jerome Armstrong, an Alexandria resident who in 2001 created MyDD, one of the country's earliest political blogs. He is advising Moran. "The biggest lesson learned from the past two years is that when it comes to Internet strategy, you have to cover all your bases."

The 2008 presidential race served as an incubator for a new generation of campaign technology that played a crucial role in raising money, marketing candidates and mobilizing grass-roots support. Now statewide candidates are seeking to capitalize on the advances, with varying degrees of success.

Last week, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced his bid for California governor via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube -- a multi-platform tactic that was described by the folks at Tech President, which covers the intersection of politics and technology, as a "21st-century version of by land, air or sea."

But with the Virginia Democratic primary just a few weeks away, that state's gubernatorial contest offers the most significant early test of the broad mainstream impact of the Internet and new technologies on campaigning. And the four candidates have spent thousands of dollars in online advertising, hired top-flight Internet consultants and built elaborate Web sites.

All are using Google Ad Words, buying the right to give prominent display to their sites when people type the candidates' names, their opponents' names and other notable phrases ("Virginia jobs," "green jobs," etc.) into the company's search engine. In recent weeks, Virginia residents who type the keywords "Virginia employment" on Google are led to an online ad for McDonnell.

McDonnell has also been the target of online ads. Common Sense Virginia, a group backed by Democratic organizations, recently launched TheRealBobMcDonnell.com, a site whose home page is a mock of McDonnell's official site and shows the mug of the former state attorney general alongside those of former president George W. Bush, radio host Rush Limbaugh and religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. The group is heavily advertising on female-oriented sites.

"Individual campaigns and issue groups started advertising early," said Peter Greenberger, Google's director of election and issue advocacy. "At this comparable stage of the 2008 campaign, we did not see this kind of adoption by the presidential candidates."

But the online investments have not yielded spectacular numbers for everyone, particularly when it comes to online fundraising. McDonnell has raised $2.2 million this year, with roughly $75,000 coming in online.

"The Internet is not just all about raising money, though," said McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin. "It's about collecting e-mails and cellphone numbers and building a list of supporters."

By contrast, about 14 percent of Moran's total donations ($123,000 of $870,000) came from online contributors. For Deeds, it's more than 20 percent of the total ($168,000 of $723,000). McAuliffe, the most prodigious fundraiser of the bunch, would not disclose how much of the $4.2 million he has raised this year arrived online.

Each of the campaigns employs a new-media team, including many veterans of the 2008 race. Kate Sokolov, who was in charge of Hillary Rodham Clinton's social networking, is Deeds's new-media director. She is aided by Scott Goodstein, who orchestrated Barack Obama's text-messaging program. In the McDonnell camp, Vincent Harris, who worked for Mike Huckabee, heads the online shop. One of the vendors he is working with is the online consulting firm Engage DC, operated by Mindy Finn and Patrick Ruffini, who formerly worked for Mitt Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani, respectively.

Unlike last year's presidential race, when the Democrats held a clear technological advantage over the Republicans -- John McCain, for example, did not have a texting program -- there is no visible gap between the two parties in Virginia. That fact is not lost among conservative bloggers in the state.

According to J.R. Hoeft, who lives in Chesapeake and runs Bearing Drift, one of the state's most influential Republican blogs, "no one can say that [McDonnell's] not present in every possible platform. He is. And in an election that will be about voter turnout, it all boils down to going after every vote."

Just ask the Democrats, who are locked in the party's first competitive gubernatorial primary in more than three decades. The candidates are catering to their own online strengths.

Although McAuliffe's aides will not reveal the size of his e-mail list, it is believed to be the largest of the three, given his national profile (he ran the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2005) and his prominent friends (the Clintons among them). He has been aggressive in sending e-mail blasts to supporters. He is sharing photo albums, sending campaign videos and asking for online donations.

Deeds has a profile on My.BarackObama.com, now rebranded as Organizing for America and housed at the DNC. Sokolov and Goodstein said the campaign is using that online portal to recruit field organizers and volunteers for the campaign.

Moran has benefited from Organize Virginia, a platform developed by WebStrong, Armstrong's online consulting firm. The program is designed to attract volunteers to the campaign and award points for phone-banking, fundraising and canvassing. About 750 activists across the state have signed up.

Among them is Todd Smyth, who is listed on the platform's site as one of Moran's "Most Active People." Smyth, who works in technology and lives in Fairfax County, said he has given about $200 to Moran.

"But more important than the money," Smyth said, "I've invited dozens and dozens of people to back Moran."

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