- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

Even as talk radio was brutalizing Sen. John McCain in the Republican presidential primaries, conservative bloggers reached a respectful truce with the Arizona senator over touchy issues and gave him what the campaign called a “tremendous positive psychological” boost.

The main reason: Mr. McCain’s blogger outreach, the most extensive of any presidential campaign in either party, helped keep him afloat in the dark days last summer when the major press was sizing up his campaign grave. During those times, Mr. McCain got attention and digital ink from the bloggers he invited to biweekly conference calls, and got a chance to talk policy.

“During the unpleasantness, whenever Senator McCain put himself in front of reporters, the question was always, ‘How much did you raise today, when are you dropping out,’ ” said Patrick Hynes, a conservative blogger who Mr. McCain hired in 2006. “And then we’d put him on the phone with bloggers, and they’d want to talk about Iraq, and pork and chasing down al Qaeda.”

For the campaign, it came down to deploying the campaign’s best asset — Mr. McCain himself — in a forum where he can excel.

Mr. Hynes said the back-and-forth with bloggers took “a great deal of sting out of the criticisms” over immigration, Mr. McCain’s push for campaign-finance changes and other areas where conservatives have registered their discontent with the senator, who has secured enough delegates to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

“It gave him a microphone when others had already left the building,” said David All, one of the Republicans’ Web pioneers who runs SlateCard.com and who said Mr. McCain has benefited from Mr. Hynes’ ties to bloggers. “That very much symbolizes the role of bloggers: We don’t have editors to report to, and there isn’t a big meeting with editors every morning. What that comes down to is personal relationships.”

It also helped that Mr. McCain treated bloggers similar to other reporters, including repeatedly inviting them to travel on the campaign bus with the press, said Matt Lewis, who blogs at TownHall.com.

“If anybody needed the blogosphere it was McCain,” Mr. Lewis said, adding that Mr. McCain recently told bloggers he would continue to give them access throughout the campaign. “He essentially said, ‘How could I not — there for a while this summer, you were the only people who talked to me.’ ”

Mr. McCain’s key move was to make himself available for regular conference calls, which he does so frequently that some bloggers say they felt overloaded and turned down some of the invitations.

The calls usually consist of the candidate offering a few minutes’ commentary on where he’s campaigning, then he opens it up to questions. He occasionally makes news, including in October, answering a question from Heritage Foundation’s Robert B. Bluey, when he reversed his long-held position and announced he would oppose the Law of the Sea treaty.

For the most part, though, the calls are a chance for folks who have a conservative take on the news to kick things around with Mr. McCain, and to give him an unedited forum to respond.

“He had an opportunity to really explain himself, and I think he’s really comfortable in that kind of format,” said Ed Morrissey, who used to blog at Captain’s Quarters and is now at HotAir.com.

The difference between blogs and talk radio is telling.

The bloggers said their forum played to Mr. McCain’s strengths: a back-and-forth on policy, and a chance to go beyond sound bites. Mr. McCain and the bloggers also shared common ground on aiming for victory in Iraq and on breaking with the party establishment to curb pork-barrel spending.

For now, blogs’ outreach is more narrow than talk radio.

A Harris Interactive poll taken in 2006 found 37 percent of Americans listened to talk radio at least once a week, and exit polls this year suggested about 60 percent of Republican primary voters were regular listeners.

By contrast, a Harris Interactive survey earlier this year found only 22 percent of Americans regularly read political blogs.

But bloggers said the experience with Mr. McCain is a sign their own community is coming of age, both with the recognition Mr. McCain has given them and the way bloggers have responded.

Mr. Hynes said the blogs “realize they’re being read by journalists and fellow bloggers” and that’s kept them serious.

Neither Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton nor Sen. Barack Obama’s campaigns returned calls about their Web outreach, though Jerome Armstrong, a liberal blogger at MyDD.com, said Mr. McCain’s regular outreach tops anything the two Democrats are doing, and he said it’s an approach he would recommend to any candidate.

Mr. Armstrong said Mrs. Clinton is ahead of Mr. Obama in her outreach, inviting bloggers onto regular press briefing calls with traditional reporters. He also said her blogger, Peter Daou, pitches ideas to bloggers in the same way press secretaries pitch stories to reporters, and Mr. Daou produces blog clippings in the same way most campaigns produce clip books of newspaper articles.

As for Mr. Obama, he said the Illinois senator “didn’t do enough to reach out to his potential allies in the blogosphere and integrate them into the campaign.” Now, when he runs into trouble, they are slower to rally to his defense.

And last month, Mr. Obama told reporters on his campaign plane he doesn’t read blogs — something they took note of.

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