Democrats unveil a file on Romney
Tout exhaustive site as online weapon
The Massachusetts Democratic Party is launching today a first-of-its-kind website that it says contains an unparalleled repository of information about Mitt Romney's record that could be used against the former governor in his White House run.
RomneyFacts.com lays out a wealth of documents: personal financial disclosure statements he filed as governor; policy proposals he put forward in his 2002 campaign; several old campaign ads; and a unique searchable database of campaign contributions from his entire political career.
The party says it will add information to the site in the coming weeks and months.
Party officials and political specialists say they know of no other effort to consolidate such a wide range of detailed information about a single candidate. But they said it is not likely to be the last.
"It's obviously a new application of the Internet, and it strikes me that . . . we'll probably soon have equivalent sites for all the candidates," said F. Christopher Arterton, dean of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.
While campaigns traditionally gather opposition research and strategically disseminate harmful information about rivals to reporters, the website gives access to raw material for bloggers, journalists, and voters to do their own research.
It also invites people to send their information or insights to the party's telephone and e-mail "hotline" for possible addition to the website.
"For many campaign cycles, 'oppo' research was treated as a covert black art, practiced by people in the shadows and disseminated by whispers from people who started their conversations by saying, 'This is on deep background,' " Lee Rainie, founding director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, said in an e-mail yesterday after reviewing a prototype of the site provided to the Globe by the state party. "This effort is different because it taps into the new realities of politics in the Internet age."
RomneyFacts.com is clearly a partisan clearinghouse, painting Romney as a "flip-flopper" who has traded in the moderate Republican credentials he presented as a candidate for governor in 2002 for a new set of conservative beliefs in his campaign for president.
Its home page compares statements "Massachusetts Mitt" made on abortion, immigration, stem cell research, and other hot-button issues with those made by "Red State Romney."
Asked about the website, Kevin Madden, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, said: "Democrat party operatives are going to continue to peddle distortions and try and attack the governor in every which way possible. Given their current crop of candidates, the last thing they want to do is to run against Mitt Romney, since he has experience, has demonstrated leadership, and has a stellar record of accomplishment."
John Walsh, chairman of the state Democratic Party and manager of Governor Deval Patrick's 2006 campaign for governor, said the site has two purposes: to show that "Mitt has taken the concept of saying anything to get elected to new levels," and to capitalize on new technology that is reshaping the nation's political landscape.
While the vast array of information contains no stunning new revelations, the site's creators say it will serve as a critical reference point as the campaign unfolds, allowing bloggers and reporters a way to quickly check Romney's record against his ads and assertions on the stump and to swiftly respond to controversies involving him. And, they said, bloggers, voters, and commentators may find items of interest that have been ignored by the mainstream media.
"Our anticipation is that many of the questions that may be answered on RomneyFacts.com have not actually been thought of yet," Walsh said.
The research director of the site, which Walsh said cost no more than $20,000, is David Stone, who worked on Senator John F. Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004 and got his start as a researcher in Senator Edward M. Kennedy's 1994 reelection campaign against Romney.
The state Democratic Party unveiled a bare-bones early version of the website earlier this summer, on the same day volunteers passed out flip-flops at an event for Romney fund-raisers at Fenway Park.
In July, the website's creators posted a video of clips purportedly showing Romney distancing himself from the Republican party while running in Massachusetts. Party leaders say they also plan to send speakers from Massachusetts to Romney events across the country in the next few months.
The state party is not the only Democratic organization working against Romney; the Democratic National Committee began researching all potential GOP candidates shortly after the 2004 campaign ended, said Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the national party.
While the national party has churned out traditional press releases to sow its negative information about Romney and other Republican contenders, it has used the Internet as a way to gather information about them. In mid-August, when Romney filed his personal financial disclosure statement, the DNC invited visitors to its website to help comb through dozens of pages of stock listings.
"It's a new world we're operating in, where we don't have a monopoly on the political process, and the folks in the grass roots are doing a good job on this," LaVera said.
Rainie said that sites like RomneyFacts.com are likely to proliferate. Even if they do not have a partisan edge, he said, they will have the effect of throwing more material into the fray.
"Everybody who is interested can build a website like this for hardly any cost," he said. "And there will be refinements as sites like this will allow for citizen comment."
Christopher Lehane, who helped direct opposition research for the presidential campaigns of Al Gore, Kerry, and Wesley Clark and who is not affiliated with any campaign this time, said in an e-mail that such opposition research sites could help shape a candidate's "character storyline," the overall sense voters have of the candidate, by delivering information to bloggers who then shape it to bolster their arguments.
"The use of citizen bloggers to convey the information is a tool that campaigns and parties can use in the same way that historically Republicans have relied upon right-wing radio to perform a similar function," he said.
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at email@example.com.