Rick Santorum, who came from behind in the GOP presidential race to nearly tie with Mitt Romney in Iowa, still has several roadblocks before he can nab the Republican nomination, not the least of which are his controversial statements about people on welfare or his opposition to gay marriage.
But Rick Santorum's biggest obstacle may not his policies, his gaffes or his limited campaign infrastructure.
Instead, Santorum's greatest foe may be Google... and columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage, who redefined his name back in 2003 to be an explicit reference to anal sex.
Rick Santorum's 'Google Problem'
For those unwary Americans googling Rick Santorum, clicking the wrong link can give voters much more than they bargained for.
Santorum's Google problem began way back in 2003, when he was a Pennsylvania senator.
Dan Savage, a sex and relationship advice columnist, challenged his readers to redefine Rick Santorum's name after he made several homophobic remarks in an interview with the Associated Press, comparing legalizing gay marriage to approving of pedophilia, incest and bestiality.
The winning definition, which Google users can still find by searching Santorum, was an instant and explosive viral hit. Savage's web site, Spreading Santorum, has been running for years, with web sites about the redefinition also trending strong.
Rick Santorum's campaign team has managed to change Google search enough to make the first two results for Rick Santorum be the presidential hopeful's web site and Wikipedia page.
Searching Santorum alone, however, still brings up the same Savage-inspired results, and a new definition of rick has also gone viral in recent years. On search engine Bing, meanwhile, Spreading Santorum continues to pop up first.
'Don't Let Dan Savage Win.'
As Mark Smith noted in an analysis for the Detroit Free Press, a presidential candidate's search results are one of the most important tools that can have, especially if, like Santorum, they aren't as well known on the national stage.
Last summer, Santorum fired back at Savage in a fundraising email, saying his perverted sense of humors meant his children couldn't google their father's name.
Fight back, he told his supporters. Don't let Dan Savage and the extreme left win.
As Santorum struggles in New Hampshire, however, it's likely the candidate regrets his attempt to boost his own media exposure by drawing attention to Savage's redefinition strategy.
That decision, and his team's hamfisted attempts to blacklist the site from Google search, have caused the effect of Savage's attack to mushroom, and a pro-life, anti-gay group known as AFTAH has brought the issue into focus once again.
AFTAH: 'Cruel, Twisted Campaigns'
Americans For the Truth About Homosexuality, a pro-life and anti-gay activist group, called on Savage yesterday to take down his controversial web site for good.
In an open press release, AFTAH president Peter LaBarbera wrote to Savage, whom he called a homosexual activist, to remove your anti-Rick Santorum hate site.
[Savage is] resorting to cruel, twisted campaigns designed to destroy a man's name and reputation by associating it with perversion, LaBarbera wrote.
He then claimed that while he could not align himself with the gay community, he viewed Savage's actions against Santorum as a move similar to the bully of LGBT teens, calling the columnist a hypocrite.
To the media I ask this, LaBarbera concluded. Please hold Dan Savage and his homosexual and liberal supporters accountable for this heinous and malicious web slander.
Dan Savage Responds
Dan Savage, of course, has never been one to stay under the radar. The columnist had a response for LaBarbera, who boasts of being devoted exclusively to exposing and countering the homosexual activist agenda, within 24 hours of the posting.
The openly gay Savage sent POLITICO this message from his iPhone: Just gonna keep doing what we've been doing since 2003: spreading that santorum.
Santorum v. 'Santorum'
Rick Santorum's struggle against Dan Savage helped push the former Pennsylvania senator into the national spotlight, and his attempts to combat sites Santorum.com and SpreadingSantorum.com have made him a media curiosity as the primary race has moved forward.
But mocking publicity is far worse than plain bad publicity in a presidential race. Think of how much flack Howard Dean got during the 2004 campaign with the Dean Scream, or how Rick Perry's Oops moment proved far more fatal to his campaign than any question of policy could have been.
Nor is the candidate's way of dealing with the Google problem solving matters.
Yes, the search engine has now been programmed to show users his web site if they type Rick Santorum into the search bar, but try looking for site:ricksantorum.com and nothing shows up.
If you want to search volunteer for rick santorum, you get a page that promises to show you how, but only leads you to a donation form for his campaign.
The Problem With Google
The problem with Rick Santorum's struggle against Savage and Google is that he took on an opponent with far more expertise than him on a battleground in which he was completely adrift.
The former senator only recently had any kind of legitimate web presence. His opponent is a man whose column for 'The Stranger has been available on the Internet for years, and who has a devoted and growing online following.
Even if Rick Santorum tried instituting a Google Notice to block searches for santorum, as Search Engine Land advises him to try, he'd still risk losing a lot of supporters simply looking for his information.
In the meantime, even with recent changes in Google search, Santorum's campaign staff still appears to be playing hide and seek with what could be potential voters, all to avoid them seeing an elaborate, offensive prank.
Rick Santorum's ongoing Google war helped his name become known in the online community. By trying to stop an Internet trend by calling attention to it is like trying to dampen flames by throwing gasoline on a fire.
Questionable taste aside, this round, and this war, goes to Dan Savage.
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