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Political blogs ready to flood 2012 campaign trail

By Jeremy W. Peters

New York Times News Service

Published: Saturday, Jan. 29 2011 10:03 p.m. MST

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Tim Pawlenty, the former Republican governor from Minnesota who is flirting with a bid for president in 2012, has none of the accoutrements that presidential contenders tend to have. No tour bus, campaign manager or yard signs bearing his name. Few Americans, in fact, even know his name.

What Pawlenty does have is a beat reporter from Politico assigned to chronicle every utterance and movement of his non-campaign campaign: a 25-year-old named Kendra Marr, who dutifully followed him through subzero temperatures last week equipped with a salt-coated Chevrolet Malibu rental, a laptop and a tiny hand-held Flip video camera.

The New Hampshire primary is more than a year away. The first major presidential candidate has yet to formally declare. Just don't tell that to the media outlets like Politico, Talking Points Memo and RealClearPolitics, which are already planning to smother the 2012 campaign trail in a way they could never have imagined four years ago when they had far smaller staffs of bloggers and shoestring budgets.

With an eye toward earning greater respectability, this crop of political websites is hoping for more than just page views and traffic-driving links from the Drudge Report. They want to establish themselves as the Blogs on the Bus.

"We were a garage band in 2008, riffing on the fly," said Jim VandeHei, Politico's executive editor and co-founder. "Now we're a 200-person production, with a precise feel and plan."

Politico will co-host, with NBC News and Telemundo, the first debate of the campaign season on May 2, getting a head start on a season of candidate face-offs that is already remarkably busy. (Politico edged ahead of Fox News, which scheduled a debate for May 5.)

Politico has nearly tripled its staff since 2008, when it was already a formidable if somewhat overextended presence on the campaign trail. It will start a website, 2012 Live, this weekend that will serve as a home for what VandeHei described as "tons and tons of stories" in addition to the kind of minutiae that Politico believes political enthusiasts can never get enough of — politicians' daily schedules, county-by-county demographic data in key primary states and historical voting trends.

There will be biographies in micro-detail, right down to midlevel state campaign consultants and unelected local political leaders. If you do not know who Rich Ashooh is, you will after reading Politico's new site. (Hint: He is a lobbyist in New Hampshire who reportedly has "an impressive Rolodex.")

Politico has also developed an interactive map that tracks where candidates have traveled as far back as 2008 and how many visits they have made to a particular state — a feature that resembles the Santa Tracker shown for children on Christmas Eve.

If all this sounds as if the question "How much is too much?" has never occurred to Politico, that is because it hasn't. "There probably is in theory a point where there's too much," VandeHei said. "But we certainly haven't discovered it."

Politico's mission in 2012, VandeHei said, is to carve out an even bigger place in the news media landscape. "We're trying to take a leap forward in front of everyone else."

Talking Points Memo, a political site that has been around since 2000 but only became a force outside Washington in the last few years, plans to expand its reporting staff to 15 people. In 2008, it had only one full-time reporter assigned to the campaign. According to the site's founder, editor and publisher, Josh Marshall, the goal is to create a bigger name for the blog by competing with newcomers like Politico and more traditional news outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times.

In the 2004 campaign, Marshall said, "We were sort of a player." By 2008, the site had become "a small but significant player," he said.

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