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CAMPAIGN 2004

Political blogs catching on

Web fundraising, commentary rise

By Anastasia Ustinova
Washington Bureau

July 18, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Jeff Seemann, a 35-year-old Ohio Democrat and former disc jockey, is little-known in his community and has not received much support from his party, yet he has raised at least $25,000 online and hired a dozen staffers for his congressional campaign.

His secret? A group of political bloggers who frequent the political blog dailykos.com has endorsed Seemann, along with seven other Democratic candidates running against Republican incumbents. Their goal is to raise money and visibility for these candidates.

"My site is a Democratic hangout," said Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, a lawyer from Berkeley, Calif., who runs Daily Kos, which he says gets more than 150,000 hits a day. "There are people here who have never donated before, but now they realize that they have to take an active role in politics."

Blogs--short for Web logs, which are online journals that usually feature commentaries on daily events and provide links to other Web sites--are emerging as potentially powerful tools for building grass-roots political support.

"Blogs are the new face of politics," Seemann, of Canton, Ohio, said. "We are on the ground level of what will be shaping up as the future of political campaigning."

While scores of political blogs don't go beyond gossip and bickering, many are quite influential, analysts say. Some feature political commentaries, such as the liberal instapundit.com or the conservative electionprojection.com.

Dean site inspires

Others, like Daily Kos, are designed as grass-roots tools. Blog for America, for example, recruits and endorses Democratic candidates for all elective offices. It started in 2002 as the official blog for former presidential candidate Howard Dean, who raised millions of dollars online.

It is impossible to obtain a precise figure for the number of political blogs, but they number in the thousands at least, according to the blog community.

It is uncertain whether these blogs will generate enough cash and attention to make a difference in the November elections and beyond.

But analysts say bloggers should not be ignored.

"Many people don't take into account how influential bloggers are," said Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University. "Blogs are getting an increasing readership. People who are going to those blogs are real political junkies who can then reach everybody else."

This year, when many politicians hope to replicate the success of Dean's wild Web ride, scores of candidates are creating blogs, seeking to gain attention of bloggers, whom they encourage to post commentaries and to contribute.

To some bloggers, however, a site sponsored by a candidate does not have the credibility of an independent site. So some politicians place ads with the independent blogs.

At the same time, some blog operators, including Daily Kos' Zuniga, provide consulting for candidates. Some say that represents a conflict of interest, as blog operators could provide favorable coverage of the candidates who employ them.

But Zuniga and others deny their blogging opinions are influenced by their consulting work.

One of the candidates promoted by Zuniga, Ohio's Seemann, is running against Republican Rep. Ralph Regula, an incumbent of 32 years.

Seemann might seem like a long shot. But the district is moderate politically and has lost many jobs in recent years, which Seemann's supporters say gives him a fighting chance.

Seemann said he does not use blogs solely as a fundraising tool and that he interacts with the online community and receives feedback about his speeches and events.

Comments beget recruits

Seemann's communication director, Tim Tagaris, and several other staffers decided to join Seemann's team after they read about him on the blog.

Still, some consultants are skeptical that blogs can change the fundamental dynamics of campaigning. They note that despite his strong online performance, Dean won little support in the Democratic primaries.

Others argue that a campaign can get into trouble by ceding too much influence to online kibitzers.

"If you give an outsized voice to people who are political junkies, that may distort the process sometimes," said Seth Merritt, a Web strategist at Issue Dynamics, a Washington-based consulting group.

Ravi Singh, head of Election Mall Technologies, a consulting group in Chicago, said many candidates try unsuccessfully to "put technology into politics, rather than politics into technology."

They want to use blogs as a fundraising tool but fail to spark interest among bloggers, added Singh, who worked on President Bush's 2000 campaign, focusing on Web strategy.

"People are hungry about the information," Singh said. "Blogging can assist in sharing this information. But it can also take on a life of its own."

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune