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Candidates Wage War Via Internet

Added: (Thu Nov 25 1999)

Pressbox (Press Release) - By LAURA MECKLER Associated Press Writer

Reserved on the campaign trail, Republican presidential hopeful Steve Forbes is a bit edgier in the new world of Internet politics, where his campaign e-mail blithely refers to George W. Bush as a "reformed playboy."

With just a few clicks, the Forbes campaign sent 42,000 people a copy of a recent column mocking the GOP front-runner for a 'drunken college escapade' - an attack leveled below the radar of traditional political observers.

"There's a certain stealthfulness to the Internet," said Rick Segal, who directs Forbes' Internet strategy. "It's a new form of campaign warfare."

In a shift that is transforming politics, the presidential candidates have seized on the Internet to cheaply generate grass-roots support, raise money and introduce themselves to voters.

Every presidential candidate has a Web site, making it easier than ever for voters to find an unprecedented amount of information.

Watch Vice President Al Gore's Thanksgiving campaign advertisement hours before it hits television. Check out baby pictures from the Bush family album. Click to make a credit card contribution to just about any candidate.

Web surfers eager to write a letter to the editor supporting Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, simply can visit his Internet site, which provides links to 59 newspapers around the country.

Campaigns also using e-mail to rally their troops, announce events and point out press clippings that shower their candidate with praise or blast the opposition.

Few readers outside of Iowa see the Waterloo Courier. But Forbes' campaign was only too happy to spread one of its columns mocking a speech Bush gave to teen-agers that recounted a "drunken college escapade when he stole a Christmas wreath."

The columnist, Eric Stern, quotes Bush as saying: "The mistake was drinking too much and thinking I was invisible." Stern then adds: "Maybe the Ivy League grad meant to say 'invincible,' and maybe those kids will learn the real lesson about how the criminal justice system works for rich, white men another day.

"Pay attention kids: Don't screw around, or you'll go to Yale University, own a baseball team, serve as the Texas governor and run for president one day."

With the help of a growing number of political Web consultants, the cyber-battle has reached all levels of the campaign.

That includes fund raising, where Democrat Bill Bradley leads the pack with more than $1 million raised over the Internet. Other campaigns are taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Campaigns also are letting people feel like they are on the inside.

Bush, for instance, offers audio snippets of him teasing reporters on his inaugural trip to Iowa. "Please store your expectations securely in the overhead bin," Bush tells reporters, who laugh back.

"It's one of the fastest growing mediums in politics and it's getting our undivided attention," said Greg Sedberry, who is managing Bush's Web site. "It's now a question of who's winning the e-race, the e-campaign."

Bush has collected tens of thousands of e-mail addresses, though his campaign just sent its first message out this week.

Forbes has a sophisticated operation. Volunteers who recruit their friends can be captains of their very own 'e-precincts,' or - if they sign up enough people - can join the 'e-national committee.'

Sen. John McCain's team sends a daily e-mail to some 30,000 subscribers. The messages from the Arizona Republican's campaign range from trumpeting his rise in the New Hampshire polls to encouraging people to attend a small brunch for his wife, Cindy, in Seattle.

Debbie Hood did just that. An enthusiastic Republican, she was turned off by Bush and looking for another candidate. She went to McCain's Web site, learned about his background, and signed up for daily e-mail.

Even though she is a precinct committeewoman, active in local GOP politics, Mrs. Hood had not heard about the brunch until she got the e-mail.

"If anyone should have known about it, I should have, and the only way I found out about it was through the Internet,'' she said. "I thought it was rather ironic."

Now she is signed up with the McCain team and ready to volunteer.

E-mail provides a particularly potent way to keep in touch with an unlimited number of backers. Virtually every campaign Web site gives people a chance to sign up, allowing candidates to build massive lists of people who are interested in their message.

It is cheaper and faster than traditional mail, and more easily targeted to people who actually want it.

"It's free direct mail," said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic consultant who backs Gore.

Forbes' Web site asks visitors what issues they care most about, along with demographic questions like education level and income. The campaign plans to use this information to target different messages to different groups.

His campaign also is considering buying e-mail lists from companies that collect addresses, although other campaigns worry that an unsolicited e-mail - known as spam - might turn voters off.

Someday, all this new information will push someone into office, predicts Linda Sinoway, who directs the Democratic National Committee's Internet operation.

"It can be the margin of victory," she said. "I just need someone to prove me right."

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