Washington (CNN) -- When a scuffle broke out at a candidate forum in Nevada last week between supporters of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican rival Sharron Angle, the fight didn't end after tempers cooled. It simply moved over to the social media website Twitter, where the war of words in this nasty race continued.
One of Angle's campaign managers, Jordan Gehrke, posted a tweet, a short message on Twitter, that accused Reid supporters of starting the fight. "Check out the video here of Reidbots screaming and heckling," the tweet said.
The message included a link to a video that appears to show audience members at the forum shouting down Angle. That same tweet also included a hashtag -- #dumpreid -- made by attaching the # symbol to the message "dumpreid." Twitter users who clicked on the #dumpreid link were taken to a feed of anti-Reid tweets.
Welcome to the new media world of hashtag politics, where the character attack is compressed into 140 characters -- the website's limit for tweets -- and instantly blasted out to a campaign's long list of "followers."
"It was inevitable that negative politics would transform itself into social media. That's exactly what's happened," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
"You don't even need a complete sentence to change a campaign -- just a phrase can change a campaign," Sabato added.
Why pay for an attack ad when you can post a free attack tweet?
One recent Reid attack tweet -- "Sharron Angle's mocks health coverage for 'autism'" -- includes a link to a video that shows the Republican Senate candidate attacking mandates in the new health care law. Is it the tweet or the video that went viral? Answer: both.
Another Angle tweet, "Harry Reid's plan to save the Nevada economy: coked-up stimulus monkeys," was both acidic and inventive. Not only did it mock the real use of stimulus money to study the effects of illicit drugs on primates. The buzzworthy phrase "coked-up stimulus monkeys" was picked up by political writers across the country.
Campaign staffers are throwing mud via Twitter too. A tweet from an Angle campaign staffer refers to Reid's handlers as "13 y/o girls." And on it goes.
Michael Patrick Leahy, a Tea Party activist and co-creator of the hashtag #TCOT (or Top Conservatives on Twitter) said, "I think we're about to enter a new era of American political history."
Leahy's "Tweeps" (Twitter slang for his followers) who click on #TCOT are transported to a virtual Tea Party, a nonstop feed where visitors tweet back and forth on the latest news in the conservative movement.
Leary's website, tcotreport.com, ranks the top conservatives by number of followers on Twitter.
One of those "top conservatives," former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has more than 250,000 followers on Twitter. Her tweets go out not only to her legions of fans, but also to the nation's top political journalists, who are following Palin's every tweet.
"She can just put out a tweet and generate headlines in the traditional media," Sabato said.
Those journalists, many of whom are also prolific Twitter users, often "retweet" or redistribute Palin's tweets to their own lists of followers.
"The retweeting is how it really gets out there," Sabato added, noting that last weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the first debate in the epic 1960 presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.