On PoliticsNJ.com, bloggers have a following

If it wasn’t for the gift of anonymity, it wouldn’t be wise for someone with an easily bruised ego to venture down to the comments section at the bottom of each of this Web site’s stories, where partisan punches tend to fly.

But in between blowing off steam, some frequent commenters have found that, on occasion, they actually have had some informative discussions, and that what they write here can sometimes impact campaigns and news cycle – whether it’s insider gossip or criticism of a reporter’s story.

Some have even developed personas and have gathered their own followings. Take DinoPCrocetti, the anonymous conservative commenter, whose alias is an homage to his idol, Dean Martin. He started his own blog, Dino’s Forum, after this site’s own pseudononymous administrator blocked his posts last summer. Under PoliticsNJ.com's new ownership he’s back.

Dino started commenting to convince Republican insiders who read the site to pay attention to the electorate in the state’s urban areas and its inner New York City suburbs . Ignoring them, he said, has caused the GOP to lose control of Bergen County. But Dino has also become known for championing other issues as well, like his persistent call to draft former Mets star Al Leiter to run for U.S. Senate, and his frequent jabs at Ron Paul supporters.

“I know that a lot of important people read and even contribute to this site and my goal is to tell them that they need to make a lot of changes tactically.”

Like Dino, Joe Tomanelli — aka “Republican Conscience” — posts primarily to criticize his own party. The 62-year-old semi-retired Mahwah CPA, who challenged State Sen. Henry McNamara in the 2003 Republican State Senate primary, has been posting here since it started allowing comments in [tk]. Tomanelli posts for one main reason: he’s hunting RINOs (Republicans In Name Only).

“I pretty much want to put down my basic strict interpretation of what a Republican should be,” said Tomanelli, who said that he’s been cheered on by strangers at Bergen County Republican Organization meetings who only knew him through posts on this Web site.

But regular commenters like Dino and Tomanelli are a self-selecting rarity and a small portion of the site’s readership. A year old study by web guru Jakob Neilsen found that about 95% of blog users are lurkers — that is, they never comment. About 5% comment occasionally and only about one 0.1% do so regularly.

But it’s unclear just how often the other 95% reads what that 5% have to say. Alex Wellen, a senior producer for CNN’s “The Situation Room” and political news division, is charged with tying his network’s political television coverage with the Political Ticker blog. The site gets anywhere from 500,000 to one million hits each day, and has had about 72,000 comments – all moderated — since they created the option four months ago.

Wellen said he’s not sure how many of the site’s readers pay attention to the comments, but political campaigns do use them as a campaign issue barometer. And on a non-partisan blog, politicians and staffers will see immediate and more honest reactions to a candidate’s speech than the campaign would find on its own Web site.

“If you get to a point where you have so much visibility that the campaigns can start taking note, they can read the communication associated with, say, a Bill Richardson story,” said Wellen. “Say there’s 100 that say this and 200 that say that, and I think all of the dialogue associated with that position is a nice, easy way for the campaign itself to get a sense (of what people are saying), and that may very well influence their message.”

There is, of course, the issue of “sock puppeting” – when a politician or staffer takes on an identity and to try to pump himself up, spread misinformation or trash a rival. But Wellen compared blog comments to Wikipedia – if there are enough participants, they tend to police themselves pretty well.

“It’s something that just continues to surprise me – the energy, enthusiasm and the level of comments,” said Wellen.

Conservative strategist Rick Shaftan, aka Mountaintop, sees correcting that misinformation as one of his online roles. That and getting through to some of the political insiders who read the site.

“I wouldn’t go to most sites and do it because most don’t have any influence, but this site has influence with and it sparks some kind of interesting discussion,” said Shaftan.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum from Shaftan is MartinOne, aka Michael Martin, a PhD student at Temple University who lives in Haddonfield.

Martin said that he’s able to take facets of stories overlooked by the press and even campaigns themselves and amplify them through the comments section — like when he posted about Republican State Senator Diane Allen’s nay vote on a bill that would create an experimental needle exchange program. A couple weeks later, Allen’s vote turned up as a campaign issue for her Democratic opponent, Richard Dennison, and then made its way into a PoliticsNJ story.

"I would think some of the lesser known scandals, voting records and issues become much more amplified,” said Martin.

But Martin, who’s been commenting on the site for about a year and a half, frequently finds himself at odds with right wing posters in discussions that degrade into personal attacks.

"I've been called a pedophile by conservatives,” said Martin. “I find the personal attacks distract from good, solid political discourse… I don’t mind engaging, but not on a personal, ad homonym level.”

A commenter named PulaskiSkywayConservative, a self-described “gritty, North Jersey populist-conservative,” doesn’t keep his identity a secret so that he can make personal attacks. Rather, he prefers not to be criticized by fellow Republicans when he criticizes one of their ilk. Or, for that matter, when he writes nice things about Democrats he respects, like Assemblymen Lou Manzo and Bob Gordon.

"When I’m saying something that can be construed as controversial, I don’t want to post under my real name,” he said. On PoliticsNJ.com, bloggers have a following