You can argue all you want about the wisdom of Gov. Sarah Palin as a vice presidential nominee - and online America has been doing just that.
To the independent political bloggers, she is catnip - a source for endless comment on whether she's unqualified to be a heartbeat from the presidency or an authentic, inspirational fresh face on the national political scene. The more she's avoided traditional media, the more the new media have moved in to dissect and define her. And the attention will intensify this week in preparation for Thursday's vice presidential debate.
"Is Sarah Palin more popular than porn?" posed a headline on the tech site infoworld.com about the numerous online searches for all things Palin, including with the search term "hot."
The Web site tracker Hitwise.com described Palin as the most searched-for political figure on the Internet in the past three years, based on any week's worth of searches.
And "Sarah Palin" blog posts have tracked higher than those for either presidential candidate during the past month since Republican Sen. John McCain chose her as his running mate. According to Icerocket.com, Palin posts have exceeded 5,400 a day, compared to 4,300 a day for Democratic candidate Barack Obama and 3,400 a day for McCain.
Sen. Joe Biden, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, barely registers on the blogs: about 800 posts a day. The reason for the blog gap seems obvious: Biden's a known entity who, despite his propensity for the verbal gaffe, isn't all that fascinating. Accomplished, respected, but not a lightning rod for comment; few are spilling their emotions online about Joe Biden.
But Palin is everything the online red-blue battlefield could ask for: a wedge personality out of central casting, an unknown leader and, with her distinctive look and delivery, a gold mine for satirists.
Tina Fey's impression on Saturday Night Live's season premiere of her - which Palin described as "spot on," despite watching it without sound - is one of the Top 20 most-watched videos on YouTube this month with a couple million views. (Ranked not far behind was actor Matt Damon's interview with the Associated Press in which he compared her being chosen to a "really bad Disney movie.")
Beyond parody and celebrity, Palin has apparently had a marked effect in attracting women to McCain's campaign Web site. Nielsen Online reported last week that female unique viewers grew to 58 percent of the traffic on johnmccain.com last month, up from 37 percent in June.
Female viewers of barackobama.com, meanwhile, dipped slightly during that span, to 63 percent last month from 67 percent in June, although his Web site still had nearly twice as many female viewers as McCain's, 519,000 to 276,000.
Stories involving Palin that haven't broken through to the mainstream debate have been fodder for vigorous argument online. Before the brinksmanship over the financial bailout and presidential debate last week, there was great online interest and comment about a report that while Palin was mayor of Wasilla, it was the only town in Alaska that billed sexual-assault victims or their insurers for the cost of the "rape kits" used to examine their injuries. Palin detractors termed it an outrage. Her supporters said the media was just digging dirt. Palin didn't issue any statement on the matter.
The tools of modern communications can cut both ways: When someone clumsily tried to hack into Palin's Yahoo e-mail account, someone sent the conservative Maryland blogger Michelle Malkin a tip that led to the son of a Tennessee Democratic legislator as a suspect.
In a talk to public policy graduate students at Johns Hopkins University last week, Charles Mahtesian, national politics editor for Politico.com, contended that blogs had a sizable impact on the Sarah Palin story even before her nomination at the Republican National Convention.
Alaska bloggers speculated that the Palins' unmarried 17-year-old daughter, and not the governor, was the mother of the infant Trig (partly based on Palin not "looking" pregnant). That likely played a role in forcing the family and McCain campaign to announce Bristol's pregnancy earlier than it probably would have liked, just as the Republican convention was getting under way, he said.
Mahtesian said the Trig rumor could have easily been shot down by Alaska politicians who said later they had seen Sarah Palin excuse herself from meetings due to her pregnancy or later to nurse Trig, but the blogosphere often shoots first and asks questions later.
Mahtesian said Politico, among the best-known political Web sites after only 19 months, strongly considers tabloid-print reporters for its pool of potential hires, sensing that they are more used to the frenetic pace, and tone, of new media.
He told the Hopkins students he thought former President Bill Clinton best exemplified how much the media world has changed in the eight years since his presidency. The Internet was just a toddler when Clinton ran for re-election in 1996 and, before that, just a gleam in a geek's eye when he ran for Arkansas governor. But the medium made the modern campaign trail more treacherous for Clinton. When he campaigned for his wife last spring, his words, quickly transmitted and magnified, became sources of contention even from the smallest media markets "where they stashed him," Mahtesian told the group.
Four years ago, during President Bush's re-election, conservative blogs led to Dan Rather's exit from CBS over the network's forged-document fiasco. During the midterm race two years ago, liberal blogs derailed Sen. George Allen's bid for re-election and perhaps higher office over a racist remark that he uttered to a small group of supporters and, to his undoing, a rolling video camera.
Whether new media produces a moment that so alters this presidential election remains to be seen, but the Internet's a much more unruly adolescent than it was the last time - and particularly fascinated by one "hockey mom."