Campaigners Seek to Connect Via the Web

Presidential campaigns have expanded beyond whistle-stop tours and rope lines and moved right into cyberspace. Candidates and their surrogates are using social networking sites on the Web in search of financial support and votes.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As they flirt with the voters and look for friends, the presidential candidates are working the so-called social networking sites on the Internet. Every serious contender for the presidency has a place for their supporters can gather on MySpace and Facebook, every serious contender and maybe a few not so serious. Some are even creating entire virtual worlds as NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH: They tell the kids today to beware of strangers lurking in the Internet offering friendship.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Be a part of our online community and connect with other supporters as we build a strong team.

SMITH: But I suppose we can make an exception for Senator John McCain. On his Web site, the 70-year-old candidate uses the cutting edge lingo of social networking. Forget MySpace, the senator wants you to become his friend in McCainSpace. Okay, he had a little help building it from a 31-year-old Christian Ferry.

Mr. CHRISTIAN FERRY (National eCampaign Director for Senator McCain): Campaigns have been all about social networking as far back as we can see, and I think that the online component is just a new piece of that.

SMITH: McCainSpace is as conservative as its namesake. It's black and white and gunmetal gray. You can create your own Web page and find out the senator's picks in the NCAA tournament. But mostly the site is a vehicle to help you raise money. But Ferry promises that soon you'll be able to customize it with music and video.

Mr. FERRY: This is McCainSpace 1.0. That is all in the works as soon as possible.

SMITH: Of course, the limit of what's possible in Internet campaigning keeps changing everyday. I'm sitting here at my desk in New York City playing a virtual game online called "Second Life." I have a character named Radio Voom(ph), and what I can do is I can hunt for the campaign headquarters of John Edwards and then I can teleport there.

So I have arrived here on this computer-generated beach where you can turn around and see all these Edwards billboards and these virtual volunteers standing around, I guess, waiting for me.

Mr. JEREMY ALDRICH(ph) (Virtual Volunteer, Edwards Campaign): Jeremy Aldrich, I volunteer for the Edwards in "Second Life" group.

SMITH: I had Aldrich call me on the old-fashioned telephone so that we could talk while he showed me around.

Mr. ALDRICH: You can see that we have kind of a trail you walk along and learn about the senator and some of the issues that are important to him. And at the very end of the trail, there's a stop to learn how you can get involved in the campaign. We also have some campaign schwag to hand out like T-shirts.

SMITH: But to make this clear, these are not T-shirts you would wear in real life; these are T-shirts you would wear in the videogame.

Mr. ALDRICH: Exactly. They are T-shirts that you would use to dress your avatar, your virtual representation in "Second Life."

SMITH: Now this is the part of the news story where I would normally call a political science professor and ask what it all means. But in this case, it seemed more appropriate to call a college student.

Mr. JAMES CORTEKY(ph): Hi, I'm James Corteky. I'm 21 years old. I'm a senior at Georgetown University.

SMITH: Corteky also reviews candidates' Web sites for the Capitol Hill Broadcasting Network. He says it's smart for a candidate to use Web video and social networking, but you can't just fake it in a lame attempt to get an E-mail address.

Mr. CORTEKY: Candidates need to stop looking at this technology as a one-way system of just - another way or another channel of broadcasting their message. They really need to see it as a two-way conversation for them to fully grasp what's going on here and how to use it completely and effectively.

SMITH: And that's where a few candidates have pulled out in front. John Edwards' Web site, for instance, is a whole political clubhouse where anytime of the day or night you can find supporters on a live chat room - talking, flirting, organizing. And Senator Barack Obama has a feature called My Barack Obama where anyone can form an interest group, find out who lives close to you, and then plan events in the real world.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

SMITH: In the basement of a Manhattan bar there's a happy hour where a dozen Web groups like Brooklyn for Obama and Hackers for Barack, all organized on the Web site by people who mostly have never met before. One of them, Philip Lamb(ph), says at the end of the day, all this social networking online has to create action offline.

Mr. PHILIP LAMB: I mean, anybody can put a Web site up. You know, anybody can say, oh well, you know, we're doing fundraising efforts, or something like that. But when people can actually see something physical, I think it means a lot more.

SMITH: Nobody here wants to be part of another Howard Dean-style campaign, full of passion and Web savvy but ultimately losing at the polls. Thousands of virtual friends online only guarantee that if you lose, you'll have thousands of virtual shoulders to cry on.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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