Early Presidential Field Relies on the Web

Jumping into the presidential fray over the weekend, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York used her campaign Web site to screen a surprise announcement video. Campaign tactics are changing as the presidential field fills with major contenders a full year before the first events.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Over the weekend, three more people joined the growing herd of presidential candidates. There were Democrats, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. And on the Republican side, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas threw his hat officially into the ring.

NPR's senior political correspondent, Mara Liasson is keeping track of all these developments and she's with us now. Mara, that herd of candidates at this point almost seems like a stampede. Let's talk about the developments on the Democratic side first.

MARA LIASSON: Well, the Democratic side got Hillary Rodham Clinton this weekend. She is now officially the front-runner, according to the ABC- Washington Post latest poll. She's got 41 percent. Barack Obama has 17. She's not a prohibited frontrunner. She has lots of vulnerabilities and we know what they are. She's polarizing - around 45 percent of the American people say they won't vote for her under any circumstances.

But Barack Obama has a lot of vulnerabilities, too, number one being his lack of experience. But I think that the most important thing to say about the Democratic field is that it is an historic field.

The frontrunners are a woman and an African American. Now, we've had African Americans and women running before for president, but never before with such a good chance for the nomination, and maybe to even get the White House.

NORRIS: Now, another Democrat threw his hat in the ring, at least, is forming an exploratory committee - Bill Richardson. Viewed as a long shot, but he does have a strong resume, particularly when you look at foreign policy.

LIASSON: He has negotiated various international crises all over the world. He's Hispanic. He's a governor. He's a former member of Congress. He also has been cabinet secretary, so he has strong resume. He is still considered in that second tier, with all those other senators and governors who are running.

I think somewhere between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the top, and all of the rest of the guys - there is John Edwards, who we should point out has been running since - he was on the ticket for vice president in 2004. He's never stopped, and he has spent a tremendous amount of time in Iowa, particularly, where he is running very well in the polls.

NORRIS: And also Senators Chris Dodd and Senator Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich.

LIASSON: Joe Biden, a former Governor from Iowa.

NORRIS: But one thing that many of these candidates have in common is their use of Web sites to make their announcements. And is this something that they're doing because it's sort of a new cool thing that voters can call this up whenever they want to, or is it a way to sidestep the pesky press corps?

LIASSON: Well, it certainly gives you more control. Hillary Clinton announced on her Web site. Barack Obama announced on his Web site. Bill Richardson announced in English and in Spanish on his Web site. Tonight, Hillary Clinton is going to have a video web chat live on her Web site.

Now, none of this is a substitute for old fashioned one on one campaigning, but the Internet is definitely a new tool, gives the candidates a lot more control. Howard Dean in 2004 showed everyone how to raise money on the Net. And it's a new tool to be used to communicate, as we saw with the announcements, but also to reach the grassroots and to organize. And every single serious Democratic candidate has hired someone from the blogosphere to be their in house liaison to the liberal Net roots.

NORRIS: Now, on the Republican side, Sam Brownback of Kansas announced the old fashioned way -

LIASSON: That's right.

NORRIS: - with a rally in Topeka.

LIASSON: He went to rally with his family. He is a social conservative. His entry into the race tells you something important about the Republican field, which is that no one candidate on the Republican side has won the hearts of the social conservative base of the party, and there still is an opening there.

John McCain, who is the frontrunner, has a long time history of distrust with social conservatives, both ways, although he's been trying to make amends. Mitt Romney, who's the former governor of Massachusetts, has been working very hard to prove that he is the real conservative, and he's been renouncing all sorts of his previous positions on gay rights and abortion. Rudy Giuliani, who's very popular in the polls among Republicans, has a very liberal track record on social issues.

So there is an opening, perhaps for Sam Brownback, maybe for Mike Huckabee. I think the point about both these fields are they're very fluid, both have frontrunners, but neither side has a prohibitive frontrunner.

NORRIS: Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Mara Liasson.

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