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Romney connecting quickly with bloggers

Taps into the Web for early support

Bill Hobbs of Tennessee is among the bloggers that Mitt Romney has been courting.
Bill Hobbs of Tennessee is among the bloggers that Mitt Romney has been courting. (Alan Poizner/ Getty Images/ For the Boston Globe)

Over cold cuts, cookies, and soft drinks, Governor Mitt Romney made his presidential pitch two Sundays ago to prominent Tennessee Republicans at the home of a newly elected state senator outside Nashville.

Romney's public schedule that day didn't list the event. Members of the mainstream press weren't invited.

But influential Nashville-area bloggers Bill Hobbs and Nathan Moore were, and both penned accounts Romney must have liked. Hobbs likened the governor to Ronald Reagan. Moore called Romney impressive and declared him "a formidable candidate for the 2008 nomination."

That Hobbs and Moore were asked to the private gathering illustrates a growing effort by Romney and his political team to cultivate a relationship with the conservative blogosphere as he prepares to enter the Republican primary, which is already being shaped as never before by countless bloggers, pundits, and other online opinion-makers.

"Particularly in a primary kind of setting," Romney explained in an interview last week with the conservative magazine Human Events, "you want to be very closely connected to the online world, to the blog world, and make sure your perspectives are being understood, and that the misperceptions, which inevitably creep up, are being nipped in the bud."

Though pro-Romney bloggers around the country have been dutifully defending him for months, the governor is increasingly taking steps to manage his own message. The importance Romney is placing on developing a rapport with bloggers reflects not only the pivotal role the Internet now plays in American politics, observers say, but also a recognition by Republicans that they have not been as aggressive as Democrats in using the web to gather support and money.

Perhaps the clearest indication of Romney's belief in the influence of online information is his hiring of Stephen Smith, 24, formerly the web guru for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, to run his online communications operation. Before Frist abandoned his presidential plans last month, Smith helped him record podcasts and keep in touch with bloggers.

"Steve is going to serve as the conduit both from the bloggers and online community to the campaign, as well as from the campaign to the bloggers and online community," a Romney communications adviser said last week. "He's building bandwidth between the two."

Smith's hiring is an acknowledgment of the viral power of web media: how they can instantly drive news stories and sustain them for days on end, said the adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Romney has not officially announced that he will seek the presidency.

"It's a very unique audience, and that uniqueness requires a unique understanding of the audience and the mediums involved," the adviser said.

News of the Smith hiring, which drew immediate praise from leading online voices, broke not long after a blogger at The Right Angle urged Romney to find someone to do outreach in the blogosphere.

Another revealing move that Romney made recently is signing up communications strategist Matt Rhoades, who was research director for President Bush's 2004 reelection effort and later for the Republican National Committee. Rhoades is respected in his own right, but he is considered especially valuable because of his relationship with blogger extraordinaire Matt Drudge, who reports about 4 billion visits to his site (drudgereport.com) this year and has publicized news and gossip items that in some cases have turned into major political stories.

Spreading negative information about political opponents can be just as important online as pushing positive postings about your own candidate. Rhoades and Drudge are both credited with inflicting major political damage on Senator John F. Kerry during the 2004 race. And while Rhoades was at the Republican National Committee, in 2005 and 2006, a series of negative stories about prominent Democrats, including Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean and Senator Harry Reid the party's Senate leader, surfaced on the Drudge Report, veteran political reporters Mark Halperin and John F. Harris report in their new book, "The Way to Win."

Hugh Hewitt, a popular conservative radio host and blogger friendly to Romney, lauded him last week for trying to seize the power of the Internet. Hewitt wrote, "Romney is setting the standard, and this is a crucial precedent for him to set: The GOP must have a standard bearer willing and ready to use the new media environment to push not just his candidacy but the ideas that bind the party together."

But Romney is hardly the only Republican presidential contender looking to operate in that environment. Arizona Senator John McCain has a paid blogger, Patrick Hynes, who routinely defends McCain and slams Romney on his site, anklebitingpundits.com.

Michael Turk, who ran online operations for Bush's reelection campaign, pointed out that, unlike Democrats, whose 2004 primary was colored by bloggers, Republicans in 2008 will have their first-ever contested presidential primary where the blogosphere is a major political force. GOP candidates, he said, will be judged on how well they've mobilized bloggers, and how much money they have raised online. The blogosphere is likely to have greatest influence in the primaries, because blogs appeal in large part to the political junkies and party activists who often decide primary races.

"The Internet, e-mail, blogs, and websites are to organizational politics what the telephone was starting in the 1940s or what direct mail was starting in the 1960s," said Craig Shirley, an author and political consultant who worked on Reagan's presidential campaigns.

Turk and Shirley are both involved with Rightroots, a new effort by prominent Republican operatives that seeks to use the blogging community to raise money for GOP candidates.

Romney, in an interview this month with the National Review, said he gets almost all his news online, and he called new media "a great force for the democratization of information." "No longer can just a few newspapers or television stations control what information we have access to," he said.

Romney, echoing an oft-heard Republican sentiment, is highly critical of the mainstream press, particularly the Massachusetts media, which he accuses of having a liberal bias.

But if Romney is seeing the promise of the blogosphere, he's also experiencing its perils. A number of bloggers have attacked him for his recent shift to more conservative positions on social issues such as abortion and gay rights. On Friday, for example, a blogger in Washington circulated a Christian Broadcasting Network report that several Romney supporters in Michigan were reconsidering their endorsement.

Romney's rivals are in similar positions, though. McCain has long faced hostility from some conservative bloggers, many of whom also blast the relatively liberal social views of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who is considered another top-tier presidential prospect.

But Hobbs, the Nashville-area blogger, says it's valuable for candidates, especially this early in the race, to see how their words and deeds are being perceived online. His write-up of the Romney event, he said in an interview last week, provoked a robust online discussion in the area about Romney's viability as a candidate, whether he was socially conservative enough, and whether his being Mormon poses an obstacle.

"The political blogosphere is not just a big convention for political junkies," Hobbs said. "It's a giant, self-directed focus group on politics."

Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com.

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