WASHINGTON – The day after her swearing-in as the first female House speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi took time to field questions from a few dozen Internet bloggers on a conference call that was off limits to mainstream media.
Last week, Pelosi's aides arranged for bloggers to question two Democratic House leaders on another conference call shortly before President Bush's State of the Union speech.
Pelosi also hired a full-time staff member this month dedicated to blogger outreach, and is making plans to launch a blog of her own. The day she was sworn in, bloggers were given special accommodations at the Capitol — and fed lunch — to cover the event.
It's all evidence of the newfound attention bloggers from left-leaning Web sites are commanding on Democratic-run Capitol Hill, especially from the new speaker, a San Franciscan with an appreciation for the power of the Internet and grass-roots activism.
Schooled by evidence of what Internet-driven politics can accomplish — from fueling Howard Dean's presidential campaign in 2004 to propelling Ned Lamont to victory over Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic Senate primary last year — Pelosi and other politicians have realized bloggers are too important to ignore.
"They've gone from an initial writing blogs off, then moving to skepticism, then moving to, 'OK, maybe we can find a way of working with these guys,"' said John Aravosis, who runs Americablog.com.
"It's a power base and it's influential and it's an opportunity. And you know what? It exists," Aravosis added. "It should only scare you if you're on their bad side."
Trying to stay on bloggers' good side is one incentive for politicians to make nice, analysts said. Blogs also are a way for Pelosi and others to communicate directly with a politically engaged audience, without filtering by traditional media. She promoted Democrats' agenda for their first 100 legislative hours in a posting on Huffingtonpost.com.
Democrats, in turn, credit bloggers with helping marshal successful opposition to President Bush's 2005 plan to overhaul Social Security by adding private accounts, a fight Pelosi led.
"It's a mistake to think that these people just sit behind their machines and don't do anything other than talk to each other and send money," said Joe Trippi, who managed Howard Dean's Internet-driven campaign. "These people are very active in their precincts, in their communities."
Friendly bloggers can help defuse attacks. Liberal bloggers rose to Pelosi's defense when she was criticized after the November election for employing nonunion workers at her vineyard. Thinkprogress.org trumpeted Pelosi's side of the story: Growers are prohibited by law from meddling in union contract issues before workers vote to organize.
Republicans are stepping up their involvement with blogs as well, and Pelosi's aides are planning new media training sessions for Democratic lawmakers and aides partly to expand use of blogs — one more sign that Congress' presence in the blogosphere will only grow.
"The speaker will be blogging," promised Karina Newton, Pelosi's director of new media.
"She understands the power that the netroots have."