When FOX News' Bill O'Reilly learned that JetBlue was sponsoring the YearlyKos convention, a gathering of prominent left-wing bloggers taking place next month in Chicago, he accused the company of supporting a site filled with hateful comments.
For the bloggers at DailyKos, a strange ally emerged: Howard Wolfson, communications director for Senator Hillary Clinton. Appearing Tuesday on The O'Reilly Factor, Wolfson called DailyKos a "community, hundreds of thousands of people who go to the site every day, who talk to one another, who participate vigorously in our democracy."
It was one of the last steps in a comprehensive outreach program to the liberal netroots that has won Clinton praise in the blogosphere, and one that has, for now, neutralized what might have been a powerful tool in the attempt to undercut the Democratic frontrunner.
Clinton is not the most popular figure in the world of DailyKos. Readers and writers at the widely-read liberal blog and the rest of the netroots are skeptical of her candidacy for president and of her ideological bona fides.
But her campaign has slowly won over a growing number of fans through an outreach plan that appears long in the making. First, Clinton announced an endorsement from former Ambassador Joe Wilson, a popular figure among the netroots, on a conference call with bloggers.
Then came Wolfson's appearance on O'Reilly's show. And Wolfson's defense of DailyKos came just hours before Clinton testified before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee on the Ballot Integrity Act, which would require states to use only voting machines with voter-verified paper receipts, another popular cause of the netroots.
The Clinton campaign was "waiting to strike at the right moment," said Todd Beeton, a contributor to MyDD, another popular liberal blog. "It was a very smart rollout."
The online outreach strategy, say online Democratic strategists, is nothing new for Clinton. In fact, it's been more than a year in the making. Last year, Clinton hired Peter Daou, until then a columnist for Salon, to run her blogosphere outreach. Daou, widely considered among the best in the fledgling industry of blogger communications, faced a difficult task when he was hired in June: Make popular a candidate whose views did not always mesh with the netroots.
Then, in August of last year, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, a proponent of the war in Iraq, lost the Democratic primary to upstart Ned Lamont, an anti-war candidate who ran with heavy backing from liberal blogs. Daou's job had just gotten harder. The netroots had tasted blood and, out to bring down any who didn't favor the end to the war in Iraq, Hillary Clinton seemed their most evident target.
She, unlike Senator Barack Obama, voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. She, unlike Senator John Edwards, would not apologize for her vote. Instead of engaging bloggers in a debate over her vote on Iraq -- a debate she would certainly lose by galvanizing the netroots against her -- Clinton has instead focused on recognizing common ground, said Conn Carroll, author of The Hotline's blogometer.
Others have stumbled, but Clinton's discipline and focus have paid off. "She's been gaining steadily in DailyKos and MyDD straw polls, and more importantly they haven't launched any campaign against her like they did against Joe Lieberman," Carroll said.
The failure of a coordinated campaign against Clinton, much like that which brought down Lieberman in the Democratic primary, is not translating into votes for Clinton; rather, it is undercutting efforts by Obama and Edwards to catch up to Clinton's place at the head of the pack.
Clinton can credit her ability to avoid antagonizing the netroots to discipline and an absence of missteps. Every candidate, it seems, loses his or her footing among the netroots at times. Blogger favorites Edwards and Obama are no exception: Obama ran into trouble when his campaign bobbled the handling of a supporter's MySpace page, in Obama's name.
The supporter, who had gathered thousands of names for the campaign, deleted the "friends" after a dispute over money. Edwards, meanwhile, did not come to the defense as fast as the netroots wished of two bloggers the campaign had hired who were under fire for previous writing some found offensive.
By avoiding mistakes and highlighting similarities on YearlyKos, voter verified paper receipts and other issues, Clinton "has definitely improved her standing among the netroots," Carroll said.
The New York senator's performances in early debates are helping her grow online. Commentors on DailyKos during the debate sounded a steady chord. "The theme is, 'You know, I'm not really a Hillary supporter, but she looks really good and she does really well,'" said Carroll.
One Democratic online strategist said the DailyKos comment boards "looked like a Clinton press release." Daou has a ways to go before he can claim Clinton is the online frontrunner she is in old-fashioned telephone polling.
The latest DailyKos straw poll shows just 9 percent of respondents choosing Clinton, far behind Edwards' 36 percent and Obama's 27 percent. But that's decent growth, as Clinton lagged with just 3 percent as recently as April.
Clinton doesn't need to win the netroots to win the nomination. All she has to do is keep them from uniting against her.
In fact, keeping bloggers at arm's length would help her, should she become the Democratic nominee, by allowing Clinton to maintain independence from those in her base with more radical ideas than independent general election voters.
When the Republican nominee tells voters of Clinton's closeness to bloggers, it will help her if they have booed her in the past. It could hurt should she be seen as too close to the DailyKos crowd. Clinton's policy of appeasement is working to some extent. Clinton has not disparaged the netroots, she minimizes policy differences and reminds bloggers at all times that they are both enemies of President Bush.
By doing so, says Beeton, "she's making herself an acceptable option." By doing so, Clinton continues her dual primary and general election campaigns, minimizing her exposure to risk while maximizing her appeal to the netroots base.