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Sarah Palin: Vetting the Potential Veep Web-Wide

Sarah PalinAlaska Gov. Sarah Palin
Source: Alaska Governor's Office Web site

UPDATED: When a presidential candidate names a relatively obscure politician as his running mate, there is an inevitable period of acclimation in which the public learns about where the individual stands on the issues, meets the family and, typically, hears the juicy details of a scandal or two.

Today's subject is Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whom Sen. John McCain named as his running mate in his bid for the presidency. Palin's case offers a fine tutorial on the quicksilver nature of the blogosphere and its role in the vetting process.

Palin was a controversial enough figure on her own -- a largely unknown outside of Alaska and relatively inexperienced, or so her detractors claimed. But her addition to the McCain ticket clearly electrified the conservative base of the Republican party on the eve of its own convention. In interview after interview, supporters spoke of her reform credentials in rooting out corruption in her own party.

Then the blogosphere lit up.

It started over the weekend, when liberal blog DailyKos.com claimed, falsely, among other things, that Palin's four-month-old son Trig was not Sarah Palin's child at all but that of her teenage daughter's. Trig, by the way, has Down's Syndrome.

Then on Monday, Palin and her husband released a statement that her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, is pregnant and plans to marry her boyfriend Levi Johnston.

The couple also appealed to the media to respect their daughter's privacy.

What followed was an online feeding frenzy that, by any measure, could be called excessive, even by Internet standards.

The New York Post took a look at Levi's MySpace page, on which the paper reported he declared himself "a f---in' redneck" who doesn't want kids. The profile page has since been put in private mode.

Then came the hoaxes. The fake Sarah Palin blog PalinDrome pens entries under the governor's name talking about things like how much she has learned about foreign policy (via flash cards) from the McCain camp in the last four days, complementing her mastery of pressing domestic issues such as overseeing Alaska's fishing permits and determining how much to pay the highway superintendent.

A fake site purported to contain the blog of Levi included a posting declaring that he and Bristol had decided to abort the baby but were worried that her mother would find out, because she was "running for something political." The site, LeviJohnston.com, has since been taken down.

And lest we forget about the tweets, microblogging site Twitter has been abuzz with "little known facts" about Sarah Palin, a meme that took hold as a launchpad for topical absurdities (and the occasional truth) of 140 characters or fewer.

The headlines on sites such as Huffington Post, Think Progress and DailyKos tell stories castigating Palin for describing the war in Iraq as God's will, condemning her for her lack of foreign policy experience and charging her with a history of indulging in the earmark practices that McCain has long railed against.

The McCain campaign, meanwhile, fought back on a few fronts, including releases on its Web site. "Ignore The Chauvinists. Palin Has Real Experience," said one campaign press release, quoting a Wall Street Journal editorial.

"In Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. John McCain has found a fellow maverick to be his running mate -- one who can help bring the right kind of reform to Washington. Ms. Palin, like Mr. McCain, has a strong record of battling the status quo, restoring accountability and effectiveness to government, and working to secure energy independence, root out corruption and curb wasteful spending," the press release said.


Predictions on Palin?

As to what all the buzz is building up to, it's a little early to say. According to Intrade.com, a site that offers prediction markets where probabilities are determined by people "buying" or "selling" a particular outcome, there is a 14.1 percent chance that Palin will withdraw her candidacy as of this writing. The McCain camp has consistently indicated that it's behind Palin.

The rumors dredged up about Barack Obama (an unpatriotic Muslim) by Internet wags on the opposite side of the election gained enough traction to spur the Democrat to create the FightTheSmears site where he sought to set the record straight. However, some conservative blogs are claiming that the FightTheSmears.com site and its owners are actually behind Web sites that have posted falsehoods about Palin.

And on it goes.

Cut short by Hurricane Gustav, the GOP is holding its convention this week in St. Paul, where McCain and Palin are slated to take the stage together on Thursday with their spouses.

Nominating conventions are traditionally a critical PR vehicle when the party tries to tell the story of the candidates and sell them to a sometimes-skeptical public. The picture they paint of themselves is often in contrast to that found in media outlets where reporters fall over themselves to unearth the skeletons from the closet. That vetting process, where America is introduced to an obscure politician, appears to have undergone a dramatic change brought on by the Web.

Updates prior version to include responses from the McCain campaign.