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Virginia Senate race will be Web battleground

  • Story Highlights
  • Republicans hope to prove their Web campaign savvy over Democrats
  • Virginia Senate race "will be the premiere battleground," GOP strategist says
  • Democrats have won last two governors' races, last Senate race in Virginia
  • Republican strategists hope to target former Gov. Mark Warner on tax hike
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By Peter Hamby
CNN
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(CNN) -- Recently, on George Allen's new Web site, GeorgeAllen.com, the former Republican senator from Virginia listed some words of wisdom from legendary college football coaches like Knut Rockne and Woody Hayes.

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From left, Gov. Tim Kaine, then-Senate candidate Jim Webb and former Gov. Mark Warner watch results come in for Webb's race.

Coming from Allen's keyboard, one quote stands out, from Ralph "Shug" Jordan of Auburn: "Always remember ... Goliath was a 40 point favorite over David."

In the summer of 2006, Allen held a monster lead over Jim Webb in the Virginia Senate race. One famous YouTube video and several campaign slip-ups later, Webb is now in the Senate wrangling over Iraq spending bills while Allen is at home in Virginia, blogging about football.

The irony of Allen's newfound Internet hobby isn't lost on anyone, but his Web dabbling reflects the growing realization among Republicans that the Web is crucial to modern campaigning. And the one Senate race where Republicans are hoping to overcome their reputation as a bunch of dial-up users takes place again in Virginia. It's there where former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner will take on an as-of-yet determined Republican, most likely former Gov. Jim Gilmore or Rep. Tom Davis.

"This Senate race will be the premiere battleground in the modern world," Republican Internet strategist David All said. "The good news is that George Allen's loss was a wake-up call for not only the state party and the National Republican Senatorial Committee but also the rightosphere of conservative activists who are hungry for a rematch."

Given Warner's popularity, a rematch in this purple-trending state will be difficult for Republicans, following Webb's narrow victory last year and Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine's win in 2005. Political observers and consultants in Virginia say the 2008 Senate race could get nasty quick, as Democratic bloggers try to maintain their winning streak and Warner's opponents look for ways to paint the presumptive front-runner as tax-hiking liberal.

The same day Warner announced his intention to run for Senate on YouTube, the NRSC launched a sleek new Web site called "Don'tMarkWarner," attacking Warner's signature moment as governor: his $1.4 billion tax increase, passed in 2004 with the help of the Republican-dominated Legislature to shore up a budget shortfall.

"There's going to be all kinds of stuff said out there to see what sticks," said Jerome Armstrong, Warner's top Web consultant. "The Internet takes the shape of the campaign at a much earlier stage than would happen traditionally in a campaign. That happens so much earlier now, if you're not out there taking part of that battle you're being framed by your opponents and losing the debate. We can't just sit back."

Democrats have two advantages online in Virginia. First, Democratic bloggers are organized and ascendant after two straight wins with Kaine and Webb.

Allen's "macaca" blunder, while important, overshadowed a crucial factor in that race: Democrats ran a grassroots campaign that capitalized on Internet fundraising and a cohesive network of state bloggers and netroots activists. Without YouTube, Webb may not have won. But without bloggers, who lobbied him to run and lined up $40,000 in campaign pledges to nudge him along, Webb may never have entered the race in the first place. That same army is now ready to go to bat for Warner.

The second advantage for Democrats is that Warner, who made his personal fortune in cell phone technology, has made tech efforts and blogger outreach a priority over the last two years.

During his brief flirtation with a presidential run in 2006, Warner courted bloggers at the annual YearlyKos convention in Las Vegas with a lavish party featuring ice sculptures and chocolate fountains. He held a bizarre press conference in the virtual world of Second Life. He also introduced "mini-Mark," a walking, talking, animated Warner that appeared on the bottom of his political action committee's Web site.

Warner's senior adviser Monica Dixon calls the blogosphere a "natural space for him." The day Warner announced his Senate run on YouTube, he promptly held a conference call with Virginia's top two Democratic bloggers, Lowell Feld of RaisingKaine -- who managed Webb's netroots outreach -- and Ben Tribbett of NotLarrySabato. According to Armstrong, Warner also raised $70,000 on the Web the day he announced.

Warner, who has an established reputation in the state, likely won't need the netroots' help as much as Webb did.

"Webb had a lot of experience, but he had never been a candidate, and he had never been involved with the party," Feld said. "He had to start kind of from scratch. No money, no staff, no office."

State bloggers may ready to chip in, but their national liberal counterparts could be more hesitant to support a politician who made bipartisanship a theme of his governorship.

Matt Stoller, the popular liberal blogger and co-founder of OpenLeft.com, provoked a mild uproar recently by writing that Warner would disappoint many Democrats because he is "a centrist, not a partisan" and predicted Warner would be a "bad senator."

After 2006, GOP strategists and conservative bloggers are keenly aware that front-runner status can be a fleeting commodity, something Republicans highlight when discussing Warner's current popularity. They're also eager to avoid last year's mistakes.

Allen's YouTube moment helped prompt the NRSC to distribute a 39-page Internet guidebook in June, recommending that GOP Senate campaigns "track" Democratic candidates with a video camera, sign up for social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, and reach out to like-minded bloggers for rapid response and to generate "buzz." Those strategies will almost certainly be given a test run in Virginia.

"There is a strong and widespread conservative blog network in Virginia that is committed to defeating a liberal, Democrat candidate," said John Randall, the NRSC's ePress Secretary. "Mark Warner has not had to run on his liberal record and broken campaign promises and bloggers will not let him nor the public and press forget this."

Conservative bloggers in Virginia lack the organizational capacity of their liberal opponents, but many insist the Old Dominion is still a red state and they plan to boost the eventual Republican candidate by keeping the political narrative focused on Warner's record on taxes. According to Randall, the NRSC will also assist conservative blogs with background and opposition research on Warner.

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But the greatest lesson from 2006 may actually have very little to do with technology: Senate candidates and their staffers at every campaign stop will be thinking twice before opening their mouths.

"I think that both campaigns are going to have a video camera in the face of each candidate every day when they speak, hoping for that magic moment to happen again," said Brian Kirwin, who writes for the conservative blog BearingDrift. "They are going to try to find whatever misstep somebody makes and try to make it into the latest scandal." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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