Clinton Finds Way to Play Along With Drudge
WASHINGTON, Oct. 21 — As Senator Barack Obama prepared to give a major speech on Iraq one morning a few weeks ago, a flashing red-siren alert went up on the Drudge Report Web site. It read, “Queen of the Quarter: Hillary Crushes Obama in Surprise Fund-Raising Surge,” and, “$27 Million, Sources Tell Drudge Report.”
Within minutes, the Drudge site had injected Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s fund-raising success into the day’s political news on the Internet and cable television. It did not halt coverage of Mr. Obama’s speech or his criticism of her vote to authorize the war in 2002, but along the front lines of the campaign — the hourly, intensely fought effort to capture the news cycle or deny ownership of it to the other side — it was a telling assault.
Mrs. Clinton’s aides declined to discuss how the Drudge Report got access to her latest fund-raising figures nearly 20 minutes before the official announcement went to supporters. But it was a prime example of a development that has surprised much of the political world: Mrs. Clinton is learning to play nice with the Drudge Report and the powerful, elusive and conservative-leaning man behind it.
That man, Matt Drudge, came to national prominence a decade ago as a nemesis of the Clintons who used the Web to peddle, gleefully, the latest news and rumor generated by the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
That people in Mrs. Clinton’s campaign orbit would tip off the Drudge Report to its fund-raising numbers is in part a reflection of her pragmatic approach to dealing with potential enemies, like Newt Gingrich or Rupert Murdoch. But it also speaks to the enduring power of the Drudge Report, which mixes original reporting with links to newspaper, Internet or television reports far and wide.
The site is a potent combination of real scoops, gossip and innuendo aimed at Mr. Drudge’s targets of choice — some of it delivered with no apparent effort to determine its truth, as politicians of all stripes have discovered at times.
Aides in both parties acknowledge working harder than ever to get favorable coverage for their candidates — or unfavorable coverage of competitors — onto the Drudge Report’s home page, knowing that television producers, radio talk show hosts and newspaper reporters view it as a bulletin board for the latest news and gossip.
Because of the sheer number of people who look at it and because of the attention it gets from the media, what appears on Drudge can, for a few minutes or an entire day, drive what appears elsewhere, making it, “a force in the political news cycle for both the press and the campaigns,” said David Chalian, the political director at ABC News.
Nielsen/NetRatings has clocked three million unique visitors to the site over the course of a month, and the Drudge Report said its users clicked onto the site a combined 16 million times in the course of a single day last week. The site’s influence, which is not limited to politics, has survived the proliferation of blogs offering all manner of news, analysis and gossip, as well as the advent of one-stop shopping political sites like Politico, which has a big staff of established political reporters.
What sets Drudge apart as much as anything is its ability to attract well-placed leaks and traffic in the freshest and rawest material — though sometimes including what some have considered smears.
On the Republican side, a generation of campaign consultants has grown up learning to play in Mr. Drudge’s influential but rarefied world. They have spent years studying his tastes and moods while carefully building close relationships with him that are now benefiting some Republican presidential campaigns — and that others are scrambling to match.
The early advantage on their side, in the view of several Republicans, seems to have gone to Mitt Romney, who hired the former Bush political aide who had been the central party’s prime point of contact with Mr. Drudge, Matthew Rhoades. His status was solidified after the 2004 election at a steakhouse dinner in Miami with Mr. Drudge, who for all his renown in politics is a somewhat spectral presence who rarely agrees to meet with political operatives or journalists and who did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.
So important was the Romney camp’s perceived advantage in the eyes of aides to Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, that at one point this year they even considered sending an emissary to Miami to build their own relationship with him, two former McCain campaign officials said. (Mr. Drudge ignored the invitation, one of the officials said.)
But, typical of a campaign with a reputation for exploiting every advantage and trying to neutralize every disadvantage, Mrs. Clinton’s communications team, led by Howard Wolfson, is not leaving Mr. Drudge to the Republicans. Five current and former Democratic officials said Mrs. Clinton has on her side the closest thing her party has ever had to Mr. Rhoades in Tracy Sefl, a former Democratic National Committee official, who has established a friendly working relationship with Mr. Drudge — and through whom Mrs. Clinton’s campaign often worked quietly to open a line of communication.
That effort has helped to mix some positive stories in with the negative fare about Mrs. Clinton that Mr. Drudge still serves up regularly, they said, though Ms. Sefl’s fingerprints are usually impossible to spot.
In April, Mr. Drudge scored exclusive access to a first round of Clinton fund-raising figures. In later months, he highlighted a campaign strategist’s prediction that Mrs. Clinton would win over even some Republican voters, polls showing her lead widening and articles chronicling her success in winning over previously skeptical voters.
Though liberals say the site’s ideological imbalance remains plain, Republicans, who viewed the site as theirs in campaigns past say they are noticing what they believe to be more Democratic driven — often Clinton driven — items on it. And, as New York magazine reported recently, Mr. Drudge sometimes mentioned Mrs. Clinton favorably on his syndicated radio program, even if no one really knows whether his comments reflected admiration or simply a recognition that keeping her in the news is good for his business.
“It seems to me that after the 2004 election, the Democrats realized the impact that the Drudge Report has, and made it a priority,” said Jim Dyke, a strategist for Rudolph W. Giuliani’s presidential campaign and the communications director for the Republican National Committee in 2004.
The Democrats have come to believe, Mr. Dyke said, what Republicans have always thought: “No single person is more relevant to shaping the media environment in a political campaign.”
Few are willing to attach their names to any specific statements about Mr. Drudge or descriptions of their strategies in dealing with him, fearing that they might alienate him.
Former Republican Party and Bush campaign officials said that in 2004 they considered Mr. Drudge’s site so central in their efforts to undermine Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign that they systemized their approach to him.
Senior aides in the Bush war room, run by Steve Schmidt, a veteran Republican communications aide, insisted on vetting any information to be fed to Mr. Drudge so as not to annoy and overwhelm him with items he might find unworthy. And, these officials said, when the approval was given, the main point of contact was usually the Bush aide who was closest to Mr. Drudge, J. Timothy Griffin, now a consultant to the campaign of Fred D. Thompson, the former Republican senator from Tennessee.
Through that system, Mr. Bush’s aides funneled embarrassing tidbits about Mr. Kerry in which mainstream news reporters had initially shown less interest. From time to time, those former aides said, an item’s appearance on Drudge would drive it into mainstream news coverage: A video clip of Mr. Kerry contradicting himself, or a photograph of him wearing a protective germ outfit.
“It’s the stuff that speaks to the absurdity of politics, and it’s done with devastating effect,” a former Bush campaign aide said.
But, several strategists said, nothing is automatic with Mr. Drudge, whose tastes can be unpredictable, making a personal connection to him all the more valuable. Those who know him best say it takes special courting to build a real relationship.
Before Mr. Griffin left politics to work as a military lawyer in 2005, he had a dinner with Mr. Drudge and Mr. Rhoades to solidify Mr. Rhoades’s new place as the main Drudge Report contact for the central party. That dinner was first reported in the book “The Way to Win,” by Mark Halperin and John F. Harris, published last year.
As the Bush political team dispersed among the Republican candidates this year, some of Mr. Rhoades’s former colleagues came to regret his special relationship with Mr. Drudge. Former aides to Mr. McCain said in interviews that they had cursed Mr. Rhoades’s name daily this year as Mr. Drudge ran a series of photographs making Mr. McCain look old and other items, like one wrongly raising the possibility that a bump he took to the head in Iraq was cancer.
Democrats have long known how the McCain campaign felt. And it is precisely why, a strategist close to the Clinton campaign said, her aides had decided to use the site more aggressively and capitalize on the line to him established by Ms. Sefl — now a vice president at the Glover Park Group, the former firm of Mr. Wolfson, Mrs. Clinton’s communications director, and an informal adviser to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe. Ms. Sefl had no comment.
At the same time, Democrats said they noticed an occasional Clinton-friendly tone from Mr. Drudge, whom New York magazine quoted as saying on his program: “I need Hillary Clinton. You don’t get it. I need to be part of her world. That’s my bank.”