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A New Netroots Presidential Candidate?

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Chris Dodd broke into the first tier of candidates in an influential survey of Democratic activists on Monday, leaping to second place in the monthly "straw poll" conducted by DailyKos, the top liberal blog. John Edwards led the pack, as he has all year, but Dodd's bounce to 21 percent has the netroots buzzing. While Dodd registered no support in the same poll in August, his aides say primary voters are just tuning in now, and they like what they're hearing.

"Chris Dodd's work to stop the illegal wiretapping bill and...end the war with a firm enforceable [deadline] is resonating with Americans who feel a sense of frustration that Congress hasn't followed through on its mandate to change the direction of the country," campaign spokesman Hari Sevugan told The Nation, in response to the DailyKos poll.

Last week, Dodd put a hold on President Bush's surveillance bill, which might allow more spying on Americans and immunize potentially criminal surveillance by telecommunications companies, saying the move was required by his oath to uphold the Constitution. By bucking the "Rage and Cave" Democratic leadership -- and building on his fights to restore habeas corpus, oppose the Iraq supplemental and withdraw troops by 2013 -- Dodd sparked the first serious netroots discussions of his candidacy.

Dodd also raised $200,000 in the 36 hours after the hold announcement, his YouTube viewers jumped 4.6% (double his rivals' growth rate), and his website traffic spiked. That traffic is likely to jump again today, as the organization Act For Change is emailing its 529,000 members with a call to "support Dodd's stand against amnesty for Bush's telco cronies."

All the action has impressed experts. "There is definitely a Dodd boomlet happening among the netroots," concluded Micah Sifry, cofounder of TechPresident. Blogger and poll junkie Chris Bowers added yesterday, "While it was expected that his gains from last month would continue, Chris Dodd has surprised even me by shooting all the way to second place in the Dailykos straw poll."

Dodd has also benefited from boosts by the most influential blogger in politics today, DailyKos founder and Meet The Press guest Markos Moulitsas. Last month, Moulitsas told readers Dodd "outshone the other candidates" and earned his vote -- though he would look elsewhere unless Dodd was competitive in January. Yesterday, Moulitsas pointed to the straw poll as a reward for Dodd's leadership in "protecting our Constitution."

Endorsements don't cut ice in the blogosphere, of course, so those posts probably don't convert many readers. But they do legitimize Dodd as a viable candidate -- a hurdle he's had trouble surmounting. When a politico like Moulitsas validates an underdog candidate, his readers are more likely to take a second look.

And Dodd is well positioned to benefit from the online attention. He's already been leading on the netroots' three major priorities: Iraq, the Constitution and Proud Aggressive Politics. As an agenda, that boils down to: End the war, Defend the Constitution and instead of apologizing for your beliefs, Fight like hell when opponents attack you or the country. Alert readers will note these are key items for plenty of Democratic voters offline.

Internet buzz alone is unlikely to propel Dodd into the first tier, of course. But I think his quick rise among Democrats online offers two reminders. First, campaigns are very fluid, from blog straw polls to the Iowa Caucus. Second, the best approach to this race is to just seriously appraise all the candidates and issues. Too many people have accepted the conventional wisdom that there are "only three" viable Democratic candidates -- primarily because they get the most media attention and donations. Never mind that no votes have been cast. Never mind that each of the "top three" have less experience in national elective office than each of the next four (Dodd, Biden, Richardson and Kucinich). And never mind that on some fundamental issues, such as defending our Constitution during an endless global war, you need to look into the "second tier" to find the strongest leadership.