2008 candidates search Web for next new thing

Former Sen. John Edwards’s favorite books include “The Trial of Socrates,” “God’s Politics” and “Into Thin Air.” His favorite musician is Bruce Springsteen. His heroes are his wife, Elizabeth, and the American people.

Former Sen. John Edwards’s favorite books include “The Trial of Socrates,” “God’s Politics” and “Into Thin Air.” His favorite musician is Bruce Springsteen. His heroes are his wife, Elizabeth, and the American people.

How did this information about a likely 2008 presidential candidate become public? Through MySpace.com, a networking website where Edwards (D-N.C.), like former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), has set up pages to tell people about himself. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) has 6,000 friends on his page at Facebook.com. Visitors to those pages can join the candidates’ “networks” and candidates can use the sites to communicate with narrow groups of likely voters.

Ret. Gen. Wesley Clark (D) has focused his efforts on podcasting, creating an audio message that his supporters can listen to at his website or download from Apple’s iTunes. Clark has the second most listened-to podcast among likely 2008 contenders, after Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), as measured by iTunes.

Seemingly overnight, the Internet has changed politics and the course of campaigns. The 30-second television advertisement has been a staple of campaigning for decades. But last summer, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) made YouTube a must-use campaign website. The site allows users to post and circulate video instantly, and Allen was caught on videotape calling S.R. Sidarth, a volunteer of Indian descent for Sen.-elect Jim Webb (D-Va.), “macaca,” which was said to be a racial insult.

Candidates face a serious challenge from the new ways people gather information and news. Fewer people are watching network television or reading major newspapers, turning instead to the Internet. This trend has left candidates hustling to figure out how technology can help them communicate with a fragmented audience.

“The way to get it back is to develop a message and put it out across different channels,” said Jerome Armstrong, a consultant to former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner’s (D) political action committee, Move Forward Together. “Those are the two overriding big things out there. The key is having a message broadcast all in sync. I’m not sure how it’s going to get done.”

Armstrong and other technology-savvy aides said candidates must integrate all of the different messaging platforms — blogging, instant messaging, text-messaging, social networking — with a campaign’s field and communications programs.

“It’s not about technology. It’s the principles behind the technology,” said Peter Daou, a consultant to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). “What campaigns miss are the principles about how this bottom-up approach works.”

“Having a MySpace profile is great, but it’s kind of a like [having] a phone and voter file and not using them together,” said Matt Burgess, an associate with the media-consulting firm of MacWilliams, Robinson & Partners.

Potential 2008 candidates have been searching for talented whiz kids who could thrive in both Silicon Valley and Capitol Hill.

Warner’s hire of Armstrong, a cofounder of the liberal blog MyDD.com, created buzz in the mainstream media and blogosphere. President Clinton hosted a lunch in his Harlem office in September for bloggers. Several sources said that Nicco Mele, the CEO of EchoDitto, an internet strategy firm, and Howard Dean’s webmaster when Dean was running for president in the 2004 cycle, has let it be known that he wants to work for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) if he runs for president.

Clark does not rely on consultants. His supporters have created pages at MySpace.com and Facebook.com, said Erik Mullen, Clark’s spokesman. 

The search for new organizing tools continues. One new fad, used by a handful of campaigns in 2006, is the use of technology that lets candidates create an incentive program for online supporters. New software would let campaigns measure a volunteer’s level of activity and reward him or her with campaign paraphernalia.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who defeated three candidates to win reelection, created the Perry Alliance Network, a system for online supporters to help the campaign and earn T-shirts and bumper stickers. 

The Michigan Coalition for Progress, a liberal 527 group and a client of MacWilliams, Robinson & Partners, held a text-messaging contest and awarded two iPods to the winners. 

Another new enthusiasm appears to be for “virtual campaigning” on websites such as Second Life, a virtual world with more than 1.6 million users where Warner first campaigned for and then later explained why he decided to drop out of the 2008 race.  

Social networking sites carry some risks for candidates because political opponents can use material against them. Some candidates banned their 20-something-year-old aides from using MySpace or Facebook because they feared their opponents would use the content against them.

Rep.-elect Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) said some Republican activists criticized him because his 20-year-old daughter’s Facebook profile included a photo of her holding a beer.

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