WASHINGTON - Dan Bartlett was praising the powers of counterattack e-mail used by the Bush "rapid-response" squad he leads when he realized that he had just sent a message with a mistake to, oh, about 2,500 reporters.
"SHOOT!" he blurted, staring at the errant e-mail on his computer screen. The message had overstated the thickness of Vice President Al Gore's Medicare reform plan, calling it 175 pages of "gimmicks" instead of 74. The Republican aide dropped the phone, came back, dismissed it as "a little typo" and then fired off an "update."
Such niceties hardly mattered. The e-mail war machine was engaged. The Gore team had its hands on the Bush message and would soon fire off a mass e-mail, rebuffing claims about "gimmicks" and other issues.
Forget the quaint 20th-century adage that gentlemen do not read each other's mail. In this age, e-mail is everybody's business. The first e-mail-saturated presidential race is a messy, rapid-fire war between sides that snoop, spar and seek to undermine each other. Error-filled messages fly out unfiltered, misdirected e-mail lands in the wrong hands and strategies are revealed with far less effort than it takes to sift through an opponent's garbage.
Old-style finger-pointing hasn't disappeared; it has expanded to other forms. Take the Bush team's charge that the Gore campaign might have planted a "mole" in Texas Gov. George W. Bush's campaign headquarters and pilfered a debate preparation tape. Some Republicans suggest that federal investigators look into campaign e-mails about the matter at Gore headquarters.
A real e-mess. But the episode hasn't diminished the flurry of messages - either internally (from headquarters straight to the campaign plane) or through countless meant-for-public-consumption releases to supporters and the news media.
The e-mail blizzard is expected to thicken as the election nears. The Republican National Committee is raffling off an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington for election night. Anyone who helped sign friends and neighbors onto the Bush e-mail list is eligible. ("A nice hotel, not Motel 6," promises deputy chief of staff Larry Purpuro.) A Palm Pilot is also available as a prize, in case Republican faithful don't want to risk being in town for a Gore victory.
The Gore team offers enticements, too. It began an "instant message" campaign this week that allows like-minded Gore backers to fire e-mail directly onto each other's computer screens, encouraging pro-Gore chatter even if a user is busy with something else, say, work.
The Democratic National Committee hopes to raise money and draw traffic to its Web site with an electronic auction (bid on golf with Martin Sheen, dinner at Spago with Patrick Stewart or a New York Knicks game with Billy Baldwin). A Bush offer practically comes with a set of Ginsu knives: "Takes about 30 seconds," the campaign message exclaims, urging supporters to enlist their friends for Bush e-mail. "That's it!"
For campaigns, e-mails accomplish more than raising money or helping get out the vote: They do what the candidates cannot on the campaign trail. They go for blood. Sending bulletins headlined "Bush Fails Math Test" and "Gore's Lack of Integrity," these correspondents zero in on negative stereotypes to try to sway public opinion and psych out the competition.
"We assume the other side reads everything," says Bartlett, whose e-mail to reporters, accusing the vice president of fabricating information about Medicare, dubbed Gore the "Hans Christian Andersen of American politics."
"We don't have anything to hide," counters Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, who knows that the opposition studies her missives, including some with sound effects such as the emergency siren screaming in the background with a news release about low immunization rates in Texas.
All the while, both sides are aware of what the other is doing, with helpful agents on rival e-mail lists allowing them to see what messages the opponent is sending.
It takes no time for one rival to hurl accusations that the other has ripped off its best material. The latest is the Gore campaign's suspicion that the Bush camp pilfered its idea of using a kind of e-mail chain letter that urges each recipient to enlist 10 more names.
After messaging supporters for weeks, reminding them that President John F. Kennedy won in 1960 by the equivalent of one vote per precinct, the Gore team began a drive to enlist recruits as "e-precinct leaders" who would round up new on-line voters. The same day, the Bush campaign also circulated an announcement of a new "Bush E-Train," pointing to the Kennedy example. Bush aides said it was coincidental.
The campaigns say they step gingerly around the new technology, careful not to seem to be inundating potential supporters with unwanted messages while hoping to attract voters.
The Republican National Committee has bought pop-up ads through Yahoo!, AOL and other Internet providers that encourage readers to hand over their e-mail addresses. The Gore campaign has made similar efforts.
The power of a thousand e-mails can be hard to ignore. This year, when Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona was battling to get on the presidential primary ballot in New York, his campaign urged supporters to send angry e-mails to state leaders. The result was an e-mail onslaught that his campaign said raised public pressure and helped secure McCain a spot on the ballot.
The technology cuts both ways. Candidates who benefit from it can also feel its sharp edge. Before the New Hampshire primary, a McCain backer was appalled to learn that someone had used his name in a mass e-mail attacking the senator. About the same time, a New Hampshire resident posted a McCain fund-raising message on his own Web site, raising concerns in the campaign that he would collect the money. (Authorities shut down his site within hours of hearing about it.)
In the final weeks, the campaigns expect to increasingly stump online. And both sides are secretly hatching digital attack plans.
"We already have new things in the works for the debates," said the DNC's Backus. "They'll be very good."
As for the Republicans, Purpuro said, "Let's put it this way: We're working feverishly."