McCain Courts Wary Bloggers

Caption In this photo provided by ABC News, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., appears for an interview with George Stephanopolous on ABC's This Week, in Washington, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2007. (AP Photo/ABC News, Lauren Victoria Burke) **MANDATORY CREDIT LAUREN VICTORIA BURKE ABC NEWS NO SALES NO ARCHIVE**
AP/ABC News, Lauren Victoria Burke
By CBSNews.com's David Miller.

Presidential campaigns, even in their infancy, are already working on building rapport with political blogs — the constantly updated, often highly-partisan Web sites where authors post news updates, opinion pieces and everything in between.

The relationship between candidates and the blogosphere is an important one, but sometimes uneasy. If bloggers and their readers feel slighted or ignored by a candidate, retribution can be harsh. But blogs will also help candidates they favor with organization and fundraising.

The candidates' outreach efforts vary. Candidates will sometimes serve as guest-bloggers on more popular sites. Other campaigns, like those of Democrats Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, have hired popular bloggers to work for them.

But those strategies can sometimes backfire, as evidenced this week, when Edwards faced questions over comments two of his bloggers had posted on an outside Web site that criticized the Catholic Church, drawing the ire of conservative groups. The story, of course, has been the hot topic on political blogs of all stripes for the past two days. Edwards decided to keep the bloggers on his staff and both issued apologies.

Republican John McCain's campaign faces a different problem: Despite leading in polls of GOP primary voters, many conservative bloggers don't like him and don't trust him.

In particular, they take issue with the campaign finance overhaul law he co-sponsored in 2002. A frequent complaint on blogs is that the measure curtails free speech and — hitting closer to home — contains provisions that threatened to severely restrict the activity of political blogs.

McCain also took heat from blog readers when he joined a bipartisan group to prevent a Senate rules change that would have ended filibusters on judicial nominees, and many are wary of him because, they say, he is too friendly with the "MSM" — mainstream media.

"I'm not going to say I'll never support the guy, but he would really have to convince me," Ed Morrissey, who writes for Captain's Quarters, told CBSNews.com. "I know, though, that some of my readers have already written they would stay home or vote for the Democrat if the Republicans went with McCain."

In an effort to improve relations with Morrissey and other bloggers, two of McCain's top aides, Terry Nelson and John Weaver, hosted a conference call Tuesday with some leading Republican-friendly bloggers.

McCain campaign spokesman Kevin McLaughlin said the blogging community is important to the campaign for their role in both digging up news and being a primary resource for many politically engaged people who shun mainstream media.

"With the Internet, blogs and YouTube, people can get news whenever they want and bloggers have gone to the forefront in transmitting news to people," he said.

The conference call bore little resemblance to one between a campaign and traditional journalists. Many of the bloggers showed minimal restraint in telling Nelson and Weaver where they parted ways with the early GOP front-runner.

McLaughlin said the campaign went into the conference call with no illusions of persuading bloggers to support their candidate. "I don't think it was as much to smooth things over as to open up a dialogue," he said. "I don't think we can necessarily say what our expectations are."

Paul Mirengoff, who represented the blog PowerLine in the conference call, told CBSNews.com that McCain could face less vitriol from bloggers and their readers if he keeps up his outreach efforts.

"One thing he can do is kind of dampen the level of criticism," Mirengoff said. "There's the hope that blogs themselves will be just a little more sympathetic to him."

But even if McCain gets kinder treatment from blogs, it is tough to say whether that will result in any more success in his bid for the Republican nomination. Even bloggers are skeptical of their impact on the big picture.

"I think as a general matter, the influence of blogs and their readers is somewhat overrated," Mirengoff said.

But while that group makes up a small amount of the electorate, their online soap box may give them a great deal of influence.

"The thing is, is that I think what they're afraid of is the fact that people who know and follow politics can influence people who don't," Morrissey said. "If you pick up a reputation among the people who are hyper-interested in politics of being a jerk, they're going to tell their friends and it's going to turn up in water cooler conversations."