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Feature

Dean's Not The Only One Who's Learned Online Lessons

Amid the country-fair confusion of campaign sites, the sniping between campaign staffs, and the attempts to make the election result seem inevitable, some actual innovations are appearing.
Late, as ever, to everything but the chow line, politicians are figuring out the multiplication factor of the Internet when properly applied. It's been four years since Arizona Sen. John McCain used the Web to raise money and gain visibility during his Republican presidential primary run, and it's evident that his lessons have been learned deeply by some.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean came within a rind of his state's beloved cheddar of raising $4 million online during the second quarter, and while some say Dean's unequivocal opposition to the Iraq war fired up dormant lefties, it's hard to believe his success is merely a matter of broadband pacifists. Maybe it's evidence enough that his site seems to have become the center of a lively community. Conversations among candidate, staff, and visitor ricochet uncontrollably. Someone on Dean's site asked, "Howard, how *exactly* do you plan to handle the situation with Israel/Palestine?" (No answer had been posted as of deadline.)

Deanforamerica.com and other innovative efforts from U.S. Sens. John Kerry, Bob Graham, and a few others are proving that effective campaign sites have more in common with feisty university quads than the pamphlets that pols used to press into the hands of steelworkers at the end of their shifts.

Dean's and Kerry's home pages help supporters physically gather for what are called "meetups." They chronicle high points of the campaign in blogs. They offer videos free from the tyranny of TV news producers. They enlist allies in petition-writing skirmishes on issues of the candidate's choosing. And oh, yes, they also ask for cash.

It's about time, too. Most of today's eligible voters don't remember grownups standing around their living room with finger sandwiches as a candidate or his surrogate laid out a few issues and made a soft pitch for checks. Actual interaction with a candidate has skipped at least a generation. The new crop of sites are throwbacks to life before mass media, says Grant Reeher, a political science professor teaching at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

"They're using the new technology to get more traditional," Reeher says. Yes and no, says Greg Curtin, co-founder and managing director of the Civic Resource Group, an organization designed to help civic groups apply technology to their operations. Sites absolutely have to work. They have to make it easy, for example, for visitors to E-mail campaign literature and petitions to like-minded people.

But Curtin says that, at heart, "It's much more about the art and craft of using the Internet than anything technological." That's ironic, given that just four years ago, most candidates viewed the Internet as a new, less-expensive, and, above all, controllable means of delivering their messages. Esther Dyson, editor of the influential newsletter Release 1.0, applauds those who "reach voters through other voters rather than through paid commercials." Just as B-to-B exchanges are more than simple sites, Dyson says, "there's a lot more interaction going on" at the more-sophisticated campaign sites. Not all of the nine declared Democratic candidates and President Bush embrace that interaction. Rep. Dick Gephardt, for instance, seems satisfied with his official site telling people, "Your participation in Team Gephardt is deeply appreciated--whether you are donating, volunteering, or simply receiving E-mails to watch our progress as we strive to make America an even better place in the 21st century."

President Bush, for his part, had nothing more than a colorful space saver online at deadline. "We're on a different timeline than everyone else," says campaign spokesman Dan Ronayne. His candidate's expecting a gentle ride to his nomination.

The border sitters might be watching how the others field Israeli/Palestinian-type questions lobbed by potential voters onto their sites. For every 100 "Am I the only one who thinks 'Generation Dean' is cheesy-sounding?" (An actual blog posting on Dean's site.), there's at least one "Hitler had to be destroyed. If Graham were in power, he would have wanted to stand back, allowing more atrocities" (An actual blog posting on Graham's site.).

But the faint of heart may lose the race before they've really begun to run. Curtin says the Internet is still a developing medium, but it might just be the last best avenue to the 3% to 5% of undecided voters who likely will anoint the next president. There's at least one well-known national political figure who'd have given a barge of chads for that many Florida votes.

Here's a critique of the 10 candidates' sites. Learn from their mistakes and successes.