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On the Electronic Campaign Trail

Take former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.). The night before he formally announced his presidential candidacy from New Orleans to a battery of cameras from the traditional media, his advisers posted a 2 1/2 -minute video on YouTube and Rocketboom.com in which the candidate outlined the themes of his campaign. To draw attention to that video, the campaign bought advertising on a variety of political blogs and e-mailed bloggers.

"Our goal was to have people go and watch that video so they could hear directly from John what this campaign was about," said Mathew Gross, chief Internet strategist for the Edwards campaign. "Within the first 48 hours or so, 50,000 people had watched that video. Now it is over 100,000 people who have seen it."

That was hardly the end of it for Edwards. Later that day he held a town hall meeting in Des Moines with more than 1,000 attendees. But the campaign streamed the session live on the Edwards Web site and, according to campaign officials, about 40,000 people tuned in to watch. The campaign used four cameras to cover the meeting, with a director shifting camera angles to increase the production values. "It was very much like live television," Gross said.

Since then, the campaign has edited the session into segments and posted them on YouTube, increasing the potential reach of what would have been a one-time event for a local audience.

Campaigns have added a position to their tables of organization: Several have decided to employ a videographer to track the moves -- public and behind the scenes -- of the candidate. "From a positive standpoint, it's providing that kind of backstage access that nobody else except the people on the campaign get to see," said Spencer Whalen, an e-campaign strategist for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

When Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) set up his exploratory committee last week, his campaign sent an e-mail to supporters with a link to a video of the candidate describing why he was preparing to run for president -- a relatively inexpensive way to deliver a message, and one that was virtually unthinkable two campaigns ago.

"The evolution of the Internet as a means of organizing has been something that's grown exponentially," said David Axelrod, a media consultant for Obama. "McCain in 2000 spawned a lot of contributions on the Internet. The Howard Dean campaign in 2004 certainly was a quantum leap. As more and more people become wired to the Internet and fluent in it, it becomes a greater and greater tool for organizing the grass roots and the democratization of politics. It's not just a tool for delivering messages to people but a tool for people to deliver messages to you."

And it is a tool for attack. Other campaigns took note of how Romney responded to the anonymous video and said they will be on notice for similar tactics that could be used against them. "If you're able to create a good viral attack ad, not as a campaign but as an individual, that can really get out there and get going," said Gross, the Edwards staffer. "That Romney episode of responding was a very smart move."

But the video record also provides a potential shield. If a rival campaign takes a quote or a incident out of context and uses it as an attack, McCain's team will have the full record to rebut, if needed.

In the 2004 campaign, the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth got huge attention for a relatively small media buy for an ad attacking Kerry. In that case, cable news magnified the ad's impact by airing it over and over. Kerry's failure to respond more quickly is now seen as a critical mistake that contributed to his defeat.

In this campaign, groups such as the Swift Boat Veterans will not need cable television's assistance. They can go straight to the Web via YouTube and let millions of Americans see ads on their own time. A television commercial paid for by MoveOn.org, a leading progressive advocacy group, attacking McCain for his support for sending more troops to Iraq began running last week in Iowa and New Hampshire as well as on some national cable stations. It was also posted on YouTube and by Friday was one of the most popular videos on the site -- greatly expanding its universe of viewers and its influence on the national conversation.

The accelerated use of campaign video is likely to continue throughout the 2008 campaign as technology opens new opportunities and challenges, with even more significant changes likely by 2012, when Internet Protocol television -- the equivalent of television channels based on the Web -- becomes more technically and financially feasible.

For now, the race is on to exploit today's technology and compete for attention not just against other campaigns but also against other Web sites. "You'll see a technology Internet primary with people trying to do interesting things and move the ball forward," Gross said. "There is so much creativity on the Internet, as a campaign, how do you reach that level of creativity and interest?"


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