- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2006

Several Virginia Republicans are exploring ways to harness the political power of the Internet to strengthen the party’s message and attract voters.

State Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II wants to create seats on the state central steering committee for members who would focus exclusively on increasing the party’s presence on the Internet.

The idea is in its early stages, but the Fairfax County Republican said in his online newsletter “Cuccinelli’s Compass” that having presence on the Internet could help the party grow “in new directions and recruit Republicans that can help our campaigns get our message out and fight the political war going on every day in the virtual world.”

“If we can give them an easy way to get involved which suits their style … then we can beef up our activist resources on the Internet,” Mr. Cuccinelli told The Washington Times. “It could expand dramatically to young people and tech-savvy people, many of them who I think will be minorities.”

The blogosphere has grown into a real force in the political world in recent years. The top Web sites have broken news stories, fueled the rumor mill and provided political analysts.

State party Chairman Ed Gillespie said yesterday he had not seen Mr. Cuccinelli’s proposal, but agreed the party must work toward having a greater influence over the messages that are pushed through the click of a mouse.

“I have said for some time that the fact is we have to be energetically involved in shaping the discussion on the Internet and blogs because it shapes how people see issues and candidates and how the traditional media represent things,” he said.

Republicans say that means developing a better relationship with the people behind influential blogs that are frequented by journalists, pundits and political insiders.

“I think we have missed largely as a party to this point,” said Tucker Watkins, 5th Congressional District committee chairman. “Right now, it’s probably 70-30 or 60-40 Democratic blogs to Republican blogs and we have not necessarily communicated well with our friends in the blogosphere.”

Republicans also say, similar to negative television ads, it is vital for Republicans to respond to baseless or distorted information that portrays a party candidate in a bad light.

“If something sits out there and gets in the water, it’s hard to get it out of the water if you don’t do it quickly,” Mr. Gillespie said.

Mr. Watkins agreed: “When something goes up that is not factually true you can’t allow it to have life.”

This year’s race between U.S. Sen. George Allen and Democrat James H. Webb Jr. highlighted the power of the online world.

“The Internet matters because it multiplies our ability to spread Jim’s message,” Mr. Webb’s senior campaign adviser, Steve Jarding, said in an e-mail to supporters earlier this year. “The more people know about Jim, the more they will support him. It’s that simple.”

Thousands watched the tape of Mr. Allen’s infamous “macaca” moment on the Internet, which created a firestorm in the blogosphere and in the traditional news media.

The Webb campaign also paid bloggers who painted a glowing picture of Mr. Webb, a Vietnam War veteran, kept people up to date on his campaign platform and ripped Mr. Allen.

Mr. Allen’s team responded by hiring conservative bloggers in September to respond to the Democrat’s online team, but damage had been done.

“The Webb people did a masterful job of it,” Mr. Watkins said.

Mr. Webb defeated Mr. Allen last month.

Delegate Chris B. Saxman, Staunton Republican, said there still is time for his party to improve its Internet operations before the upcoming campaign season kicks into high gear and all 140 members of the General Assembly are up for re-election in November.

“You have to be willing to make the changes when opportunity presents itself,” Mr. Saxman said.

But some Republican are not sold on the idea.

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican, said he is not convinced that increasing the party’s influence on the Internet will pay dividends with undecided voters.

“The problem is most of the people who monitor these blogs are hobbyists who already know who they are going to vote for,” he said. “I don’t think the average Joe who doesn’t know whom he is going to vote for is monitoring blogs.”

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