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Presidential race sets blogs ablaze

A media critic calls Web logs "the voice of the mob" as partisan bloggers flood the Internet.

The U.S. presidential campaign between President Bush and John Kerry has prompted a frenzy of gossip and conspiracy theories among Internet bloggers.

As Bush and the Massachusetts senator slug it out in a neck-and-neck race ahead of the Nov. 2 election, partisan bloggers have flooded the Internet with alternative views about both candidates, which they hope will help sway voters.

Media watchers say much of the gossip on the Internet is as loony as supermarket tabloid stories claiming Elvis Presley lives, but that it still has a role to play in the campaign.

"Blogs probably pretty accurately reflect the level of polarization and paranoia and frustration among everyday Americans that the entire campaign reflects," said Vanity Fair media critic Michael Wolff, characterizing the new form of overtly biased journalism as "the voice of the mob."

Self-styled Internet commentators scored a victory recently when they questioned the authenticity of documents used by television network CBS to challenge Bush's military service in the National Guard during the Vietnam era. CBS later admitted it had been duped into using questionable documents for the report.

After Tuesday's debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Kerry running mate Sen. John Edwards, blogs quickly refuted Cheney's claim that he never met Edwards, posting a picture of the two together within moments of his statement.

And ahead of Friday's second debate between Bush and Kerry, the Internet was abuzz with gossip that the president wore a listening device during last week's debate allowing an unseen puppet master to whisper cues and tips in his ear.

The Bush campaign said that rumor--likening the president to Milli Vanilli, the infamous singing duet unveiled as frauds for lip-syncing--was totally false.

"It's a laughable, left-wing conspiracy theory," said Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel.

Online magazine on Friday examined the morass of "evidence" offered on myriad blogs and concluded, "As for whether we really do have a Milli Vanilli president, the answer at this point has to be, God only knows."

Driving the latest incendiary blogging is a picture posted on the Internet of Bush during the debate in Florida. Shot from behind, the image shows what appears to be a bulge beneath the president's suit jacket below his shoulder blades.

Robert Thompson, pop culture professor at Syracuse University, called the accusation "the biggest conspiracy theory" of the campaign to date. "Until there's a credible source, I'm not sure I buy it," he said.

A recent Pew Internet and American Life Project found more than 2 million Americans have their own blog. Most have few readers, but some garner thousands of hits daily as the American public becomes increasingly distrustful of mainstream media.

Bush isn't alone in being targeted. Conservative bloggers accused Kerry of using a cheat sheet during the first debate and have also issued critiques of his Vietnam war record.

Many bloggers have been so partisan that they have even raised money for the candidate of their choice--something that has led most media watchers to take much of what appears on the sites with more than a grain of salt.

Story Copyright  © 2004 Reuters Limited.  All rights reserved.