Candidates putting spin on the Net New homes: Although use of the Internet by presidential candidates is relatively new, all the major players in the 1996 campaign have set up headquarters on the World Wide Web.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Roosevelt was the radio president, known for his fireside chats. Kennedy, who charmed America in his debate with Nixon, was the television president.

In the 1996 campaign, candidates ranging from Sen. Bob Dole to comedian Pat Paulsen are hopping on the Internet. But don't look for any of them to be crowned the first cyber-president.

In setting up headquarters -- "home pages" or "Web sites" -- on the Internet's World Wide Web, the campaigns have recognized the potential of what experts say will become a potent campaign tool by 2000. But for now, with relatively few voters logging onto the Web (though more are doing so all the time), candidates seem content mostly to appear high-tech.

"None of them really have their heart in it," said Steven Wagner, a vice president at Luntz Research Group, a Republican polling firm. The political use of the Internet, Mr. Wagner notes, is still in a rather primitive and gimmicky stage.

Home pages usually begin with eye-catching graphics and a photo of the candidate. By clicking on highlighted words or images, voters can find video and audio clips, photos and other information.

Some features border on the inane. Want to see Lamar Alexander play the trombone? Hear a sound bite from Socks, the Clinton cat? Order a free Bob Dole bumper sticker? It's all there.

"It's comic," John Heilemann wrote in the December issue of Wired magazine. "Republican presidential candidates boast of Web sites they can't describe, let alone locate, while congressional Democrats claim that, on the Net if not on the Hill, they're still the majority party."

Mr. Heilemann's article, "The Making of the President 2000," analyzed how a rivalry over technological know-how between House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Vice President Al Gore began when they were both House members and will continue, he predicts, in their quests for the presidency in 2000.

Meanwhile, a contest for technological supremacy is raging among the candidates in the 1996 race, and their home pages are the primary battlegrounds. That's because home pages are cheap.

They cost just $30 to $50 a month, although some campaigns incur monthly expenses between $1,000 and $1,500 because they hire teams of consultants. Still, that's about $18,000 for a year of Internet exposure, far less than the $30,000 to $50,000 needed for just one 30-second television ad.

Candidates say they value the medium's power to bypass skeptics in the print and broadcast news media and give voters "unfiltered information." As a result, they have used their home pages as information clearinghouses, filling them with speeches, position papers, legislative records and campaign biographies.

'Significant step'

"We see this as the most significant step since television," said Mark Lugar, who runs the home page for the presidential candidacy of his father, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana. "I'm not running a television or newspaper ad that you may or may not see. When you come to the Internet site, you have to have the address and know how to get there."

Many of the official home pages can be accessed at a single Web address that is linked to the presidential Web pages: http://www.ipt. com/vote/. Yet one inescapable fact is keeping this brave new world from entering the present: Few voters yet have access to the Internet, and even fewer to the World Wide Web.

Only about one out of five on-line users -- 3 percent of Americans -- have used the Web, according to a survey by the Times Mirror Center for The People and The Press. The typical Web surfer, according to the survey, is a white male between 18 and 29, college-educated and a little more likely to be a Democrat than a Republican.

Other surveys suggest there are 16 million to 20 million Americans on-line and that Internet use is growing at a 10 percent rate each month. Still, many political analysts say the consequences for 1996 will be negligible.

"You don't have enough voters on-line to have a substantial impact," said Ron Faucheux, publisher of Campaign and Elections magazine. "Television and radio are more effective."

Yet all the major presidential candidates have home pages, as do some congressional candidates, interest groups and voter-education organizations. If nothing else, they make for good publicity. This year, the campaigns of Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and Mr. Alexander of Tennessee fought a rhetorical tussle over who had been the first on the Web. (Mr. Gramm sent out the first press release in May, but Mr. Alexander was on the Web two weeks earlier).

"Lamar is trying to project himself as one of the technology candidates," said Jim Brandell, the Alexander campaign's 26-year-old director of Internet services. "He carries a Macintosh laptop around with him and everything."

Mr. Alexander's home page features the red-and-black background reminiscent of his plaid shirt that has become his trademark. Since May 12, nearly 400,000 people have accessed the site, which has attracted about 120 to 160 volunteers, including 100 "Students for Lamar," and a number of campaign contributions.

"We didn't do this as a gimmick," Mr. Brandell said. "We wanted to get his information out among all the technological possibilities."

The Dole page has the most sophisticated graphics and may be the most user-friendly. There is a quiz that responds to right answers with "You make your country proud!" and wrong ones with "Are you a Democrat or what?"

Despite the fun and games, the home pages are clearly in the business of raising money. In two months, the Senate majority leader's Web site has attracted about 750 volunteers.

People at the Kansas Republican's campaign headquarters allow that their man is hardly a Web junkie.

Dole's no Web junkie

"He's not what you call a Web surfer," a Dole staffer said. "But just because he doesn't operate a video camera doesn't mean he can't be on television."

According to Mr. Wagner, neither Mr. Dole nor any other candidate -- including President Clinton (the first on the Web, in 1992) -- has tapped the Web's extraordinary potential. That power, Mr. Wagner suggests, lies not in flooding home pages with information but with interactivity.

Likening the Internet to a nascent form of talk-radio, Mr. Wagner said the future is in the Web's back-and-forth real-time chat sessions between voter and candidate, the ability to send a campaign a question by electronic mail and receive an immediate response, and the campaigns' ability to use e-mail to communicate instantly and cheaply with far-flung groups of volunteers.

The day when national campaigns will be able to exploit the Internet as deftly as they do, say, the loopholes in campaign finance laws, seems far off.

By 2000, this is the kind of communications that experts like Mr. BTC Wagner and Mr. Heilemann expect to represent a fundamental element of national politics.

The largest chat sessions reach about 10,000 people. Mr. Lugar went on America Online (AOL) on Dec. 13. Mr. Alexander, the first candidate to hold a chat session, was on AOL for 35 minutes the night before he announced his candidacy. And a former candidate, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, also held a chat session.

There are risks

Politicking on the Web does carry risks. What if a campaign worker at the keyboard contradicts the candidate's position, or answers the question for someone in Iowa in a way that angers someone in New York?

There has also been a proliferation of unofficial or bogus Web pages, thanks to computer hackers. A fake Buchanan page features swastikas where the 50 stars would be on the American flag. A bogus Dole page says Mr. Dole "is a big fan of tropical fruits."

But supporters of the Internet say technology will overcome the mishaps. Eventually, they say, interactive video conferences over the Internet will be as common as a campaign stump speech.

"We are just in the beginning stages of this," Mr. Brandell said.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
63°