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Candidates bet on Internet to set record straight

By Michael Coren

Paul Begala and Robert Novak of CNN's "Crossfire"  blog their reactions to the debate in real time  on starting at 9 p.m. ET.
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(CNN) -- In televised debates, when a single misstep could spell political ruin, candidates strive to place their best foot forward.

Beyond this careful choreography, the audience is ready to jump on any gaffes, mistakes or juicy remarks that may slip past candidates' lips.

Fortunately for them, hundreds of bloggers, political action groups and the campaigns themselves are ready to serve up commentary over the Internet.

The Bush and Kerry camps have set up rapid response teams to spin the debates over the Web as they happen and in the media frenzy afterward.

Each is using e-mail alerts, blogs and staffs of researchers and political pundits to refute statements by the opposing candidate over the airwaves and the Internet.

The stakes are high. Millions of votes are up for grabs, and recent polls indicate many Americans could change theirs depending on what they hear during the three debates.

As far as "war rooms" go, the Bush Internet effort during the debates may best qualify for the label.

The campaign has dedicated a separate team for the debates of about 25 policy, communications and technical specialists who will run a "mini-mission control" in Arlington, Virginia.

"We'll be able to respond in real time," said Brian Jones, a Bush campaign spokesman. "If we're on question seven, then five or six will already be posted."

The campaign's Internet site launched "Debate Facts" to provide a running commentary -- and rebuttal -- of Sen. John Kerry's points during the debate.

It provides a nearly instantaneous stream of information to journalists, Web site visitors, pundits and more than 1,000 bloggers watching and commenting on the debates.

"Blogs for Bush" editor Matt Margolis, 24, said it will refer to the campaign's fact-checking material during its coverage of the debates on the blog, which he says reaches about 12,000 people on average.

"We're doing a live blog roundtable," he said. "We're going to post our thoughts and give some insight into how [the debates] are going."

The Bush campaign also published a "John Kerry Attack Matrix" that includes ready responses to Kerry's possible criticisms and video clips that support critiques of the Democratic candidate.

A spokesman for the Kerry campaign says it has a "very aggressive" operation to make its voice heard over Republican attacks.

"We have a rapid response center that gives people the tools they need to get Kerry's message out," said spokesman Chad Clanton. "We have given facts to knock down Bush's attack and tools to play offense and defense."

The Kerry operation has about a dozen staff members in Miami who will produce three updates on its Web site during the debate and send out news alerts to bloggers and reporters.

The campaign also will distribute a free DVD, "Bush vs. Reality," that bashes the president's handling of the country.

Progressive groups have also launched their own efforts.

America Coming Together, a voter registration group partially backed by billionaire financier George Soros, is sponsoring a Truth Canvass on Saturday to "knock on the doors of more than 60,000 battleground state voters."

The group's Web site also produces a blog called "Lie of the Day" that comments on Bush stump speeches.

For both campaigns, the Internet holds a central role in this election.

A Gallup poll in January 2004 found that at least 47 percent of Americans checked the Internet for news on politics or presidential candidates.

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