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On the attack: Campaigns develop micro websites to target their opponents

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 27, 2010 - The Missouri Democratic Party owns up to two special websites -- theveryworstofwashington.com and favorofthemonth.com -- set up solely to highlight what it views as the failings of the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, Roy Blunt.

Among other things, the sites link Blunt, a U.S. representative from Springfield, Mo., to disgraced Republican figures like convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former U.S. House GOP majority leader Tom DeLay.

The Missouri Republican Party so far has one such site -- acorncarnahan.com -- that seeks to tie the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, to the embattled community organization ACORN. The site includes copies of e-mails between Carnahan, her election staff and ACORN officials.

Blunt also has set up two special websites -- rubberstamprobin.com and getrealrobin.com-- that seek to discredit Carnahan. The "rubberstamp" site shows Carnahan in the garb of Batman sidekick Robin, while the "getrealrobin" site currently focuses on what Blunt's campaign calls the "Santa Fe tapes." They are allegedly secret recordings of Carnahan's speech and some conversations during a fund-raising event on July 29 at a private home in Santa Fe, N.M.

The special attack websites are known as "micro sites," and are becoming an increasingly popular political practice around the country.

Both national parties have set up such "micro sites," or similar blogs, to take aim at certain targets. The national GOP, for example, has a blog devoted solely to attacking U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Lexington and a top Republican target this fall.

Going 'micro' can ignite macro attention

In all cases, the special websites are separate from the standard campaign sites that Blunt, Carnahan and their parties maintain, although the larger sites often feature links to their "micro" partners.

Content aside, the crowd of special attack sites prompt a simple question: Why?

Jonathon Prouty, spokesman for the Missouri Republican Party, says that micro sites provide a vehicle so that their topics -- pro or con -- stand out.

"Your general website exists to provide a good overview of what the party (or campaign) does," Prouty said. "A micro site ... allows you to focus on a topic in depth and increases the visibility of the message" that otherwise "would get buried on the regular website."

Democratic Party spokesman Ryan Hobart also touts the strength of micro sites as "a good way to promote a comprehensive message."

In the case of Blunt, he said, Democrats have a lot of negative information about his congressional career that they want to highlight. The issue "needs its own website to get all the information out," he said.

But more important, Hobart added, micro sites are easier to promote and circulate on social websites like Facebook and Twitter. Fans of a particular site often will post a link or a Tweet to a favored micro site's content.

Pro-Democrat blogger Sean Soendker Nicholson says there also are technical reasons for setting up micro sites. Since they have less content overall, the sites can be equipped with special interactive features that attract and entice viewers to circulate the information among their friends and political allies.

Special websites, Nicholson added, also tend to attract more interest -- and coverage -- from political activists and the press.

A Missouri Republican campaign consultant, who asked not to be identified, said that campaigns also have an ulterior motive for segregating their more volatile negative attacks on special websites.

"It distances the candidate" doing the attacking, the consultant said, adding that some sites in his opinion have "crossed the line."

Some Democrats already have made that assertion about Blunt's promotion of the so-called "Santa Fe tapes." His campaign has periodically posted short excerpts from the tapes -- in some cases, just a few words -- on the GetrealRobin.com site.

Battle of the 'Santa Fe tapes'

Blunt said in an interview that his campaign is making portions of the tape public to back up his assertion that "you have a candidate who says one thing in Missouri and something else somewhere else."

Carnahan declined comment this week, saying neither she nor her campaign will respond until the Blunt campaign makes public the entire Santa Fe recordings.

Some of her allies assert that Carnahan's words have been taken out of context and compare the situation to that of former U.S. Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod, who was fired over public comments that a conservative blogger took out of context.

The Blunt campaign denies manipulating the Santa Fe tape's content but has declined to release the whole tape. In any case, the attacks already have scored some successes: Tape segments have generated some editorials and opinion columns around the state that have been critical of Carnahan, without challenging the tactic.

Prouty at the Missouri GOP said the Blunt campaign's creation of a special micro site to promote the Santa Fe tapes has definitely attracted more public and press attention than if his campaign had simply posted portions of the recordings on its main website.

"These issue websites hold real interest for a lot of folks," Prouty said, especially if the sites include information and documentation that's unavailable elsewhere.

The audience for micro sites, he added, "probably tends to skew a little younger, a little more Web savvy and more interested in politics."

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the micro web sites are perfectly suited for the World Wide Web's best feature:

"The web is an echo chamber and content bounces all over the internet," Robertson said.

Attacking a rival via a micro site "insulates the campaign a little, while getting repeated by other news outlets," he said.

And more are on the way. Prouty said the Missouri Republican Party is about to unveil another micro site. It also will attack Robin Carnahan.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.