Every day, campaign “stories” (or storylines) concocted in the shadowy back alleys of the world wide web seep into the mainstream media like so much foul-smelling waste.

Last Wednesday, Wonkette! posted a series of photographs of John Kerry and John Edwards embracing, accompanied by the hilarious headline, “Most liberal ticket ever, indeed.” The next day, Matt Drudge followed suit with his own “developing” Kerry-Edwards “story” titled, “Can’t keep hands off each other.” That night, NBC’s Jay Leno ran a gag Kerry-Edwards ad on “The Tonight Show” — set to Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful” — with footage of the candidates arm-in-arm. And on Friday, as Campaign Desk noted, The Washington Times’s Wesley Pruden took the baton from Drudge and produced an absurd piece — “Nothing says lovin’ like a little huggin’” — in which Drudge’s “report” is quoted.

On Friday, the Associated Press’s Liz Sidoti caught on, filing a copycat piece headlined, “Kerry, Edwards show public affection,” which ran in papers from Boston to Los Angeles.

Here is Sidoti’s suggestive lead: “Bear hugs. Pats on the back. Shoulder squeezes. John Kerry and John Edwards are all over each other.” Days earlier, Drudge had breathlessly begun his piece with this: “Hugs, kisses to the check, affectionate touching of the face, caressing of the back … John Kerry and John Edwards can’t keep their hands off each other!” (Oddly, it seems Sidoti forgot to include the exclamation point in her story.) She does, however, dwell on the body language of the Kerry-Edwards “lovefest,” noting that the candidates “threw their arms around each other or patted each other five times in less than a minute, and then clasped hands and raised them above their heads,” and that “sometimes the two tilt their heads together to make inaudible comments.”

Chris Matthews also got into the game yesterday on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” when, like the gossip in the middle school cafeteria, he asked his panelists, “Know who thinks [John Edwards is] cute?” and then answered himself, “John Kerry,” before running Jay Leno’s faux ad chronicling “the budding romance.”

Surprisingly, Matthews’s attempts to get Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, a “Hardball” panelist, to weigh in “on this relationship” fell mostly flat. (Although Fineman perhaps kicked off the next speculative storyline when he replied, “Behind all those pats that you’re seeing there’s a considerable amount of tension as these two very egotistical guys try to get on the same page.”)

We know this “story” has arms. Let’s hope it doesn’t have legs.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.