The race heats up, and the slime meter jumps

The Baltimore Sun

After whipping up the crowd for a John McCain appearance in Cincinnati last week, Ohio radio talker Bill Cunningham got a scolding from the Arizona Republican senator for smearing Sen. Barack Obama, whom he repeatedly referred to as "Barack Hussein Obama." A day earlier, a photo of Obama in a turban during a diplomatic trip to Africa somehow found its way to the Drudge Report online.

But you could have already told the presidential race was getting slimier from the blogosphere, which acts as a graphic, if unscientific, political seismograph.

The phrase "Barack Obama" shows up on a Google search of all blogs about 58,000 times during September and October 2007. During the first two months of this year (slightly fewer days due to February), the Illinois Democrat's name showed up 12 times as much - 688,000 times - which would seem logical since he's considered much more the front-runner now. It might also be a reflection of Obama's appeal to young voters, those most likely to communicate online. (In January, the last month tracked by the research firm Nielsen Online, Obama was mentioned in a little more than half of 1 percent of all blog posts, Hillary Clinton a little less than half of 1 percent. The top three Republican contenders each had about one-third of 1 percent that month.)

But the phrase including his middle name "Barack Hussein Obama" - which, as Jon Stewart pointed out during the Oscars, presented an added obstacle by reminding people of the late deposed Iraqi dictator - showed up only 333 times during the September-October period last fall. During January and February, it appeared more than 10,000 times, a 30-fold jump.

That could have been because bloggers were simply that much more acquainted with his full name, or perhaps they wanted to be more formal out of respect for his rising candidacy. But another possibility is that as Obama ascended as the potential nominee of his party, critics found his full name a devilish way to needle him. The blogs are full of talk-radio wannabes.

By comparison - and again, it's unscientific - Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose full name might not pack the partisan wallop it did from critics in the early '90s, appeared in blogs about 22,000 times last September and October, and nearly 109,000 times in January and February, a tamer, five-fold increase.

The phrase "Hillary Clinton," meanwhile, appeared about 77,000 times during the two months last fall and 443,000 times this winter, a similar, six-fold increase.

Beyond games with names, you could divine through the blogs the growing fervor of the campaign on the eve of Tuesday's pivotal Democratic primaries in Texas and Ohio.

Bloggers critical of Obama seemed to be attacking him with more zeal than his actual opponent, who inexplicably played nice on the final question of the debate in Cleveland Tuesday, when the moderator, Brian Williams, practically begged her to describe the biggest weakness of her opponent. (He asked the question of both candidates, but with 11 straight primary victories, Obama, who answered first, could more afford to be magnanimous.)

Some bloggers say the media have become too swept up in the style of Obama's oratory and arena-filling appeal to focus on questions about lobbyist contributions and alleged sweetheart land deals.

As for the Democratic senator from New York, well, bloggers by and large smell blood better than sharks.

As her once-dominant campaign has faltered, song parodies and entries attacking everything from the way she claps ("like a seal") to a poll mocking her various "faces" have mushroomed in the poppy fields of blogdom.

For the self-described battle-tested former first lady, it's nothing new: Her detractors got personal long before her husband's vice president invented the Internet.

Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.

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