Huffington blog aims to host Web debates in US race
NEW YORK, Jan 13 (Reuters) One of the most widely read US political blogs is inviting candidates for the 2008 presidential election to hold an online debate, a first that would confirm the Internet's reach and influence.
Arianna Huffington, a political commentator who has run for governor of California, said the line between established media and independent blogs would blur further as the 2008 poll neared.
Her site, the Huffington Post, has contacted Democratic and Republican party officials about organizing a debate for each side, she said in an interview.
''2008 is going to be critical in terms of the coverage of the election,'' Huffington said. ''We are working to put together the first primary online debate among candidates and working out the logistics of how this is going to happen.'' Politicians have paid close attention to the Web since Democratic party chairman Howard Dean rose from obscurity to front-runner in the last US presidential primaries, largely thanks to contributions and support organized online.
Bloggers' coverage of US politics has gained prominence, alongside that of well-established newspaper and television outlets, as audiences seek more unabashed discussion of everything from environmental policy to the war in Iraq.
In a more recent contest, bloggers promoting Democratic Senate challenger Ned Lamont in Connecticut were partly credited for his primary victory over incumbent Joe Lieberman last year. Lamont lost in the November general election when Lieberman ran as an independent.
Some politicians have also joined the blogging fray to get their message to specific communities.
''We try and look at the coverage of news less from what we believe is this obsolete left/right filter,'' Huffington said, referring to the spectrum of U.S. political views.
INVITATIONS The Huffington Post has sent debate invitations to declared candidates for the 2008 race, like Democrats John Edwards and Sen. Chris Dodd, and held informal talks with the campaigns of likely candidates, Huffington said.
''It's obviously much more convenient for campaigns that they (candidates) can be wherever they are and still be seen in streaming video'' on the Internet, she said.
The Web could offer a more flexible format than television debates, and ideas under discussion include fielding questions from a wide audience online, letting candidates join by video from different locations, and inviting reporters to monitor the event from one location.
As newspapers and television journalists increasingly create their own blogs, Huffington sees the boundaries blurring further.
On Thursday, the site said it had hired senior BBC journalist Elinor Shields to the new post of managing editor.
In November it hired Newsweek writer Melinda Henneberger as political editor to build up its original reporting. She is also behind the online debate effort, Huffington said.
''I'll be looking for us to break more news and to broaden the agenda,'' Shields said. That would include recruiting bloggers from hot spots like Iraq, where traditional reporting is difficult and dangerous, to help complement regular news stories, she said.
HuffingtonPost.com was the second most popular political blog site in December, according to tracking firm Hitwise.
It attracts more than 3 million unique visitors each month and is beefing up its news operations and management as more readers migrate to the Internet for their information.
REUTERS SY RAI0953