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Candidate feels sting of the Web

A congresswoman's comments that Obama and others may be anti-American result in a windfall for her rival.

October 23, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter | Huffstutter is a Times staff writer.

BLAINE, MINN. — Elwyn Tinklenberg is living the long-shot candidate's political dream.

There weren't enough chairs for the volunteers crammed inside the four-room campaign office Wednesday morning. Every time aides hit "refresh" on their computers, hundreds more online donations appeared. Downstairs, the postal carrier spent 10 minutes trying to cram a two-foot stack of envelopes stuffed with checks into the mail slot.

"It's been raining money," said Beth DeZiel, 39, the campaign's dazed deputy finance director. "There's so much, we can barely keep up. It's unbelievable."

But this unsolicited good fortune -- $1.3 million since Friday -- isn't based on anything the Democratic former mayor and grandfather of seven did. It's all because of something his rival, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, said.

On Friday afternoon, Bachmann appeared on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" and made what has been dubbed the million-dollar mistake: Bachmann, 52, alleged that presidential candidate Barack Obama may hold "anti-American" views, and proposed a media investigation into "the views of the people in Congress [to] find out: Are they pro-America or anti-America?"

While Sen. Obama's presidential bid has transformed the way campaigns use the Internet to reach volunteers and donors, the technology has also become a way for the public to instantly react -- even to races in which they can't vote.

Those quick reactions, often in the form of donations, can influence the outcome of a campaign, said Julie Barko Germany, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.

Barko Germany said "the Internet can be an amplifier," enabling viewers to react instantly to something that incites strong support or fury.

"It's an excellent fundraising tool," she added, citing research indicating that "when you show someone a video online, they donate 10% more."

Bachmann's interview has turned the race into one of the country's most intensely watched. It also unleashed an online backlash against Bachmann, who many local political observers assumed would easily win reelection.

President Bush won the district in 2004 with 57% of the vote. In 2006, former state Sen. Bachmann was heralded as the first female Republican to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the district, which is dominated by blue-collar and farming communities.

And this summer, one of the few polls conducted in the race showed that Bachmann held a 13-point lead over Tinklenberg.

But on Wednesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee pulled all of its TV advertising supporting Bachmann in the 6th District, according to a GOP source. Since her "Hardball" appearance, Bachmann's lawn signs have been vandalized. Callers spew profanity at volunteers and obscenities about the congresswoman at her district campaign office.

Bachmann has retreated from her statements at nearly every campaign stop. She blamed the brouhaha on falling into a "trap" she said Matthews laid for her, and on having her words twisted by bloggers.

"This has been a game of telephone gone into overdrive -- nothing more," said Bachmann spokeswoman Michelle Marston. "A week ago, our competitor had no name identification. If they think that they'll win by throwing a million dollars' worth of mud, I can tell you right now it won't be enough."

Marston said Bachmann's campaign also had seen a jump in contributions, from sympathetic donors who feel she's being unfairly targeted. But Marston said she didn't know the specific amount.

At the time Bachmann was on "Hardball," Tinklenberg was watching a college hockey game and stumping for votes in the bleachers. The cheers drowned out the sound of his cellphone ringing.

"By the time I looked at it, my voice mail was full," said Tinklenberg, 58, who served as Gov. Jesse Ventura's transportation commissioner from 1999 to 2002 and now works as a transportation consultant.

"It was family, friends, neighbors, supporters," Tinklenberg said. "Everyone was asking, 'Did you see what she said?' "

Since then, the campaign -- whose eight staff members had gone Dumpster-diving for office furniture and the wire wickets used for lawn signs -- has become flush.

The majority of the funds have come electronically. Of the more than 20,000 online donations, 3,210 came from Minnesota. An additional 2,405 people donated from California, and 2,330 from Texas.

Thousands of people have called the campaign office, offering up their credit card numbers. Some gave the maximum $2,300, but most offered far smaller amounts, $3 or $5, along with a message of support and an apology for not being able to give more.

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