McCain Lures Friends & Foes With Web Whimsy

ByANALYSIS by JENNIFER RUBIN

March 19, 2007— -- John McCain, like each of the major GOP Presidential hopefuls, is devoting considerable resources to help shape favorable coverage through the "new media" -- the term loosely used to describe the campaign's website, Internet bloggers, "social networking" sites, online ads and direct e-mail.

McCain however enjoys certain unique advantages and faces certain challenges the other GOP contenders do not.

When his revamped campaign website premiered in February, Redstate.com, a conservative website usually not friendly to McCain, reported in real time, "Moments ago Sen. John McCain unveiled his new campaign website, JohnMcCain.com, featuring loads of information, lots of video and tools for bloggers to actively engage McCain supporters. The website is what you'd expect from the Republican frontrunner -- and puts his competitors' websites to shame."

Indeed the website, a key part of the new media operations run by eCampaign Director Christian Ferry contains biographical information, video of McCain's campaign and TV appearances as well as "testimonials" from supporters, and an array of interactive features which allow readers to form their own campaign operations, communicate with friends and fundraise for the campaign.

According to the campaign, this state of the art media tool is maintained by a "small" staff at McCain headquarters and an outside vendor. The campaign will not release exact figures but states that they get "tens of thousands of hits" on the site each day.

Ferry refers to the website as "almost a living thing" which will continually be updated, incorporating, for example, footage and information from McCain's bus tours to Iowa and New Hampshire.

The message running through the video and biographical information has a common theme: McCain is a battle tested, highly knowledgeable candidate.

His website is replete with pictures and text describing his military service and imprisonment, testimonials from member of the Armed services, and clips from vintage McCain speeches talking about wasteful government spending.

Ferry explains that all of this is meant to emphasize that "McCain has the experience and life stories which uniquely qualify him to be president."

But McCain, whose acerbic sense of humor is sometimes problematic, also shows a lighter side.

For the sports minded, they can find his picks for the NCAA basketball tournament. Comedy fans can enjoy clips of him bantering with David Letterman or crooning off key in a Saturday Night Live skit mocking Barbra Streisand.

The website is only the beginning of the McCain new media operation.

He, like the other candidates, has "social networking profiles" on sites like Facebook.com and Myspace.com, channels on Youtube and Veoh, and a share of online ads.

Their direct email messages, while not as frequent as some of the 2008 candidates, go out with updates on McCain to hundreds of thousands of Internet readers at least once a week.

All of this technology is not meant, according to the campaign, to replace traditional media or direct "snail" mail, but rather is "a piece of the overall communications plan."

While McCain's glossy website and Internet tools are second to none, he does face a substantial challenge.

A critical, if not downright hostile, audience of conservative bloggers operate websites which frequently recount each long held grievance against him of the Republican establishment, from McCain's support of campaign finance reform (which bloggers see as an assault on the First Amendment) to immigration reform to the Senate Gang of 14 compromise on judicial nominees.

Many media observers like Larry Sabato perceive, "Campaign finance is at the heart of much of the blogger antagonism, though some remember McCain's attacks on Christian conservatives in 2000. The other items just underline the suspicion that conservatives have about what McCain would do once in the Oval Office--- that he would frequently disappoint them."

John Hawkins of Rightwingnews.com says, "It's much broader and deeper than McCain-Feingold alone. It's his comments about social conservatives back in 2000, the rumors about him switching parties, the gang-of-14 compromise, his pro-illegal immigration stand, his fight to coddle al-Qaeda at Gitmo, and probably a half dozen other things."

Among the bluntest is Dean Barnett of Soxblog.com and Hughhewitt.com who says, "He has antagonized the right consistently for six years. The damage cannot be repaired."

Some of the antagonism is clearly a function of McCain's fairly good relationship with traditional or "MSM" media as the bloggers refer to the object of much of their criticism and scorn.

As displayed in the "Rathergate" scandal, which they titled the firestorm over forged documents about George Bush's national guard service, the MSM is a frequent target of these sites, which delight in pointing out factual errors and perceived biases in major newspapers and broadcast and cable networks.

Jim Geraghty of National Review Online explains, "McCain is beloved by a lot of high-profile media voices going back to his 2000 run, and fairly or unfairly, that's going to arouse some suspicion on the part of some grassroots conservatives. Most bloggers see themselves as Davids to the Old Media Goliaths."

Patrick Hynes, a consultant to the McCain campaign heading blog outreach and operator of his own websites at anklebitingpundits.com and thedailyacts.com, hopes that this audience is not a lost cause.

Stressing Ronald Reagan's maxim that "if you agree with me 80% of the time you are my friend," he believes the list of blogger complaints should be seen in perspective.

Hynes says, "McCain has a lifetime ACU (American Conservative Union) 82% rating. McCain is a conservative. He has risked his political future because he believes that winning the war on terror including the war in Iraq is fundamental to our security."

Hynes explains that Internet media is fundamentally different than traditional media because of the speed of Internet and because "new media makes no pretense they are objective. They are fair but not objective and don't pretend to be."

He treats "bloggers as a constituency" and has identified more than 200 right of center blogs in his effort to "provide information, answer questions and build relationships" to bloggers whose sites attract some of the most politically active and aware voters in the Republican Party.

McCain's outreach to this skeptical audience has been more circumspect than that of former Massachusetts Governor Romney, who appears regularly for website interviews and at events like the CPAC Convention and Nation Review Institute Conference which are frequented by bloggers.

Hynes says that McCain does not hold regular conference calls with bloggers but has done them periodically and will do more.

The Senator does respond to requests from individual bloggers for information and initiates calls and emails on a daily basis to provide them with tidbits about the campaign and McCain's appearances.

Hynes stressed that bloggers were on the recent Straight Talk Express bus tours through New Hampshire and Iowa and will have full access to McCain and high level campaign officials.Hynes also has the job to respond bloggers familiar jibes.

Matt Lewis of Townhall.com voices a common complaint that McCain does not appear at conservative gatherings, saying, "Woody Allen said, '80 percent of life is just showing up,'" before adding, "McCain would have been wise to go to conservative events like CPAC and talk about the 95 percent of issues he agrees with conservatives on. Skipping these events is viewed as a direct slap in the face."

Hynes responds that McCain was at a campaign event in Utah during CPAC and will be in Iraq at the upcoming Club for Growth meeting which the other GOP candidates will attend, but that he goes to many conservative events.

Ed Morrissey of Captainsquartersblog.com isn't buying it, saying, "He snubbed CPAC; bad move. He looks like he's running away. No one will believe him when he says that he represents conservatives and then refuses to meet with them."

Hynes points out areas of agreement with many conservative bloggers: gun rights, abortion, and, of course, the Iraq War. And now and then McCain does get recognition from the conservative bloggers.

Hugh Hewitt has hosted McCain on his talk show and frequently praises his support of the Iraq, although he says, "McCain is a great American, he's been a lousy senator and a terrible Republican."

Dean Barnett, Hewitt's main guest blogger, recently linked to a video of McCain movingly describing his Hanoi imprisonment and remarked, "While on most days we focus here on the other two thirds of Hugh's formulation regarding McCain, this video reminds us of the first part -- in spite of everything else, John McCain is a great American."

The bloggers offer varied advice for McCain's new media operation, ranging from a dismissive jab that "McCain's best bet is to try not to further alienate people in the new media and work around them" from John Hawkins to more constructive suggestions that "[m]aking the candidate available goes a long, long way" (Dean Barnett) and that it is still a good idea "to pick up the phone -- or have a happy hour… that goes a lot further than getting random emails. (Matt Lewis).

The best technique may be very low tech, says Jim Geraghty, "I think the value of a campaign having a 'blog guy' is the value of having somebody on the campaign to contact with a question who will hopefully get back to me quickly. Even something as simple as, 'Do those poll numbers surprise you?' or 'Does that rumor ring true to you?' is useful."

Does the new media matter in 2008?

A recent New York Times poll reported that 57% of self-identified Republicans never visit a political website and 48% don't regularly listen to talk radio.

Even the bloggers are circumspect about their influence.

Powerline.com bloggers recently pointed out that "the candidate who thus far has come the longest way in the shortest period of time didn't accomplish this through the Internet. Barack Obama came out of obscurity the old fashioned way -- a great speech at a convention, appearances on the cover of major magazines, and the publication and republication of books."

They went on to note that "the ability of bloggers to influence directly the outcome of primary races or the general election is probably miniscule."

Dean Barnett also recently reminded his readers, "It's probably a safe surmise that there are no more than 300,000 conservative blog readers...In a country of 300 million, those numbers are in an absolute sense just not that big."

Barnett points out the limited role of new media, saying, "We can't whip up a storm over everything. We can only whip up a storm over something that the mainstream media should have noticed but somehow overlooked."

Still campaign operatives, outside observers and bloggers advise that it is unwise to ignore the new media.

Larry Sabato explains that "the smaller the caucus or primary turnout, the greater the influence by bloggers. Their readers almost certainly vote. Most of the general population never shows up until November."

Hynes remarks that at the very least the McCain camp is hoping for a "high level of communication" with the bloggers and their readers, who he terms an "important bellwether" of opinion in the party.

Ferry comments that not only is the Internet "an important source of news" for more and more voters, but it is a resource for "activism" to attract people who have never participated in a political campaign. His message to them: "stay tuned" to the website and get involved.

In the end, McCain's relationship with the new media is in many ways a microcosm of his campaign. He enjoys tremendous advantages -- biography, experience, money and organization -- but he faces a sometimes antagonistic audience of conservative activists.

McCain's hope, like any candidate's, is that his advantages can overcome his significant challenges. As Ferry says, stay tuned.

Jennifer Rubin is a freelance writer and attorney.

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