Imagine a candidate for major office allowing just anyone to help him draft his campaign stands?

Utah has such a candidate: Democratic U.S. Senate challenger Pete Ashdown, who hopes to unseat longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, come November.

"I think only one other candidate — a Libertarian in Maryland running for the U.S. Senate — has a collaborative wiki site" on the issues, says Ashdown, a Web guru through his Utah-based XMission Internet access business.

But while at first blush having an Internet interactive issues forum may sound good, it can also cause problems.

Someone could see it as an opportunity to put vile, racist or even threatening material on the site, such as the person who posted on Ashdown's site that "coloreds" should have more elective abortions.

Even if offensive, Ashdown believes, such free speech should still reign.

Ashdown, a tech-savvy candidate who is at the forefront of Internet campaigning, says the benefits outweigh the problems on his interactive wiki "town hall meeting." Some "jerks" may write absurd opinions, but overall a good online debate takes place, Ashdown maintains.

"My site was actually attacked in January," with some obscene material, even pictures, placed on his wiki site. "We're blocking those people from coming back" and posting more junk, he says.

At Ashdown's campaign Web site — vote.peteashdown.org/ — there is a page designated as "collaboration wiki," where anyone can read where Ashdown now stands on 47 different issues. You can then rewrite some of those stands, putting in your own two cents' worth. So far the wiki site has had more than 35,000 hits, Ashdown says, although only several hundred bothered to write in.

Some issues are more volatile than others. Ashdown's abortion issue has seen 33 rewrites over the six months the site has been up; his immigration issue 21 rewrites. But his corporate reform issue has only one rewrite.

The wiki site "is very valuable, in the sense that I want to collaborate with everyone. Governing should not be 'us' versus 'them.' We should all participate. The best solutions are not partisan. The best solutions should rise to the top," Ashdown says.

After a new rewrite is submitted, Ashdown himself or one of his top campaign aides will review it. And then they will either ignore the suggestions or incorporate them in some fashion into the "officially rewritten" issues stand.

Most of Ashdown's issue stands are still works in progress. When Ashdown gets close to formally adopting an issue stand, a banner at the top of the written issue states that if no further comments are made within 14 days, the issue stand will be moved over to his official issue page. So far, Ashdown has 25 formalized issues.

"Those (25 formal) issues are what I'm talking about as I travel the state," says Ashdown. He thinks most of the remaining 22 "collaborating wiki" issues will become his formal stands as the campaign continues.

Most site visitors probably won't see the offensive material. But all suggested changes remain on individual issue sites under a "history" click.

If you take a look at Ashdown's "abortion" wiki issue's history, you find just one of a number of offensive rewrites.

One anonymous reader/writer suggested that Ashdown's abortion stand start with: "The federal government must join with responsible communities and families to increase elective abortion of coloreds."

Ashdown, of course, completely rejects such an idea. And his rewrite of his abortion stand after that suggestion was posted does not include any such language.

But even with the argument of free speech and open campaign dialogue, is it wise to include such offensive ideas on a candidate's own Web site?

"I think it is slim" that readers would take such comments out of context and either believe they are his own ideas, or that he somehow sanctions such vileness, Ashdown says.

Has there been cases where the wiki debate actually changed Ashdown's beliefs?

"Yes," he admits. Two examples: guns and Iraq.

"At first, I thought there was need for some kind of gun control." But after reading differing viewpoints, Ashdown says he's now a defender of Second Amendment rights.

On the Iraq war, Ashdown says he at first thought he and other Americans had to back U.S. troops no matter what and be in the war for the long haul.

But "an unknown American" wrote on his site that through the democratic process U.S. troops should leave when Iraqi citizens vote to tell them to go. "That is now what I advocate. You get out of the argument of when to leave, who decides. Let the Iraqis decide. And I may be the only (major) candidate for the Senate saying so."

Ashdown is also using his site to post what's known as "opposition research." And because it's an open forum, anyone can write in claiming Hatch said or did this or that — likely fertile ground considering Hatch has been in the Senate since 1976.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com