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Presidential Candidates take to the Web

24th March 1999, 16:54 GMT

By Mike Stuckey, MSNBC, March 24, 1999 5:34 AM PT

A variety of candidates are using cyberspace in their 2000 presidential campaigns.

It's the volunteers, stupid. While graphic designers and code cowboys vie to add the latest cyber bells and whistles to their candidates' sites, the killer Web app for the 2000 presidential campaign is recruiting and deploying your troops. "Mobilizing supporters is the big advantage," says Michael Cornfield, a political scientist at George Washington University in Washington. "You need people to show up at those rallies -- you need to pack those Iowa caucuses." If the Web, which only made its debut in presidential politics in the 1996 race, makes a difference in the 2000 election, Cornfield and others say, it will be in how successfully it's used to drive those supporters into action. Aggressive showings online With that in mind, most of next year's White House hopefuls are making early and aggressive showings on the Web.

Texas Gov. George W Bush matches his English-language Web site with a Spanish version.

Former Red Cross chief Elizabeth Dole lets supporters customize their view of her site.

Former Education Secretary and Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander will give you a peek into his 'personal journal,' although a recent visit to the site showed it hadn't been updated in a week.

Ohio Rep. John Kasich urges visitors to nominate local heroes for his 'Hero of the Week' feature. (The first has yet to be named.)

Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley , the only Democratic candidate on the Web so far, offers frequent updates to his travel and campaign schedules.

Republican Pat Buchanan's site exhorts an "Internet Brigade."

Former Vice President Dan Quayle homepage focuses on American family values.

Noticeably absent so far in the race for votes via the Web is Al Gore, but the vice president and Democratic front-runner vows to have a cyber campaign site soon. Republicans Gary Bauer and Bob Smith also lack sites.

Perhaps the most successful gimmick so far was Steve Forbes' claim that he was "the first in U.S. history" to kick off his campaign on the Web. That bit of marketing garnered a publicity windfall for the wealthy publisher, whom polls place in the middle of a crowded GOP pack.

After 24 hours, traffic to the site, at just over 5 million visitors (more than 5 percent of the popular vote in the 1996 election), was "far surpassing expectations," said campaign press secretary Juleanna Glover Weiss. Whether those visitors translate into votes remains to be seen, but so far they have translated into 1,700 new volunteers.

Like others, Forbes' site offers supporters various ways in which to help the campaign. Volunteers can use an online form to commit to everything from putting bumper stickers on their cars to leading a Forbes "e-precinct," a kind of e-mail chain letter where the supporter's stature grows with the number of others her or she attracts to the campaign. Get 5,000 others to follow your "first spark of patriotic activism" and you make the "e-National Committee."

That's the key, says Carole Ann McKeown, who, as a California State University graduate student, wrote an award-winning master's thesis on candidates' use of the Web in 1996. "You're not going to attract people to your site who aren't going to vote for you," she points out, so you should focus your efforts on organizing and motivating your partisans.

Use the Web to "keep those folks involved," echoes Lynn Reed, who was the Clinton-Gore Web coordinator in 1996 and whose Washington, D.C.-based Net Politics Group is handling Bill Bradley's Web site for the 2000 race.

Reed says political uses of the Web are still clearly "evolving," but one of the best she's found is merely collecting names and addresses of supporters. In the first 3 1/2 months that Bradley's site has been up, the campaign has gleaned the names of 11,000 potential volunteers.

No candidate offers a more immediate way for supporters to take action than Republican Pat Buchanan, whose site exhorts an "Internet Brigade" to undertake "Online Activism" via hyper links that click right through to unscientific polls at other sites. "Let's get out there and stand strong for Pat," users are urged. On Tuesday, the call to arms was backed up with links to polls at Capitol Hill Blue and America Online.

"My goal is to activate the brigade, to get them fired up and get them going," says Linda Muller, Buchanan's Web site director. From headquarters in McLean, Va., Muller updates the Buchanan site "all day long, minute by minute," convinced that the Web's "instant access on a global basis for us to get our message out" will play a key role in her candidate's campaign.

Across the state in Charlottesville, University of Virginia Professor Larry J. Sabato isn't so sure. "I think it's almost a matter of keeping up with the Joneses. In the long haul, 2000 is not going to be determined by the quality of the Web site."

But Sabato believes that the Internet eventually will prove to be a powerful force in American politics. One day, he predicts, we'll actually use it to vote. In the meantime, some observers expect that Web campaigning in the 2000 race won't be entirely positive. However, George Washington's Cornfield points out, "The negative uses of the Web are not going to go out under the names of the official candidates." Campaigns will use "surrogate" sites to launch their hit pieces, he believes.

And Reed says the Web provides a great opportunity for candidates to criticize one another in legitimate ways. In a 1998 Washington state House race, she produced a site that catalogued some 400 votes that her candidate's opponent allegedly failed to make during his tenure in the state legislature.

Independent of her candidate's page, the "" site was referenced in television ads and "lended credibility to the accusation," Reed said. And it won an award from a political consultants trade group.