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Thursday, April 29, 2004 02:54 pm

Masters of their Domain

When it comes to cyberspace, the Bush-Cheney campaign wields the most weapons

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COVER ILLUSTRATION BY lynn herzberger

Think the Republicans got lost somewhere in cyberspace? Think again. The GOP's underreported e-campaign may lack the media razzle-dazzle of the Howard Dean phenomenon, but it promises to leave no less a mark on the annals of political campaign history.

It all comes down to differences in style and strategy. For Dean, the Internet was a way for the people to take back the Democratic Party. His e-campaign had all of the creative fervor and chaos of Woodstock on servers, but it failed in the end to maintain its candidate's early momentum. For President George W. Bush, the Internet is a potent tactical weapon, and his aides intend to wield it with party discipline and order to Nov. 2 and beyond.

That means online organizing of in-house "block parties" rather than relying on the all-familiar www.Meetup.com, a privately run Web site heavily favored by Democratic presidential campaigns. "We are building up one Bush organization," a key Republican strategist says in describing why the party shuns Internet events it doesn't orchestrate itself.

It's a corporate approach that meshes with the style of the Bush administration. The campaign's Web advertisements, for instance, are expected to stay "on message," says Chuck DeFeo, the e-campaign manager for Bush-Cheney '04.

A question of tactics

But will that strategy work? To date, the Internet has produced the most dramatic results as a medium for grassroots political organizing. Trying to impose traditional party discipline on it, argues Democratic online strategist Jonah Seiger, co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Connections Media LLC, is "like herding cats."

Even so, just as the Republicans became the masters of direct mail -- a tool first used by George McGovern -- they intend to put their own stamp on the Internet.

"If you step back and think about the past century of political activity, there is a common pattern," Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager, told Internet strategists at a recent gathering. "Whichever party or whichever candidate masters the latest political communications technology has tended to be the party or candidate that is successful."

Beginning in 1999 with just 17,000 e-mail addresses, the Republican Party now has more than 6 million e-mail addresses, triple the size of the Democratic National Committee's database. On its Web site the GOP has also signed up a half-million volunteers; they receive chatty notes from party leaders several times a week.

The GOP Web site's campaign-loyalty program -- called Team Leader -- allows volunteers to collect points for writing a letter or soliciting a new party member that can be redeemed for coffee mugs or golf caps emblazoned with the party logo. "The purpose of the Team Leader program is to engage your average American citizen in the political process," says a program spokeswoman. "So many people want to be involved and they just don't know ... where to start."

The Bush-Cheney Web site provides a step-by-step blueprint to channeling that energy. Built around sophisticated Web tools, it aims to convert interested Republicans into committed volunteers. Within minutes of someone's signing up, the Web site has created a tailored "activity center" for that user. It provides contact information for the user's local radio stations and newspaper, plus sample letters they can send with regard to key issues. A tracking system allows the user -- and the party -- to keep score each time someone writes a letter to the editor or encourages a friend to sign up. Regional campaign offices also take advantage of the database.

In a typical week, a Republican volunteer can receive e-mail invitations to participate in a phone bank close to home or attend a function such as a book reading by Karen Hughes, the president's former communications director. By comparison, it's far more cumbersome for volunteers using the Kerry Web site to learn whom to call or to write with a pro-Kerry message. Bush-Cheney e-campaign manager DeFeo compares the Republican Party's customized approach to voters to the tailored recommendations that customers receive once they log on to Amazon.com. Come Election Day, the Bush campaign will use its Web-software tools to send each volunteer a map and directions to the nearest polling place as well. "I don't know of any other campaign capable of doing it," DeFeo says.

Top-down or bottom-up?

But the Bush campaign doesn't match the Democrats in the degree of interactivity -- or spontaneity -- it allows in the campaign. For instance, what the Bush-Cheney Web site calls a blog reads more like a long list of press releases and announcements. Readers can't post replies or engage in a conversation.

"Any organization that simply views a Web site as a megaphone to talk down to its supporters is misusing the power of the Web," says Larry Purpuro, coordinator of the Republican's e.GOP project in 2000.

"Most campaigns are run by control freaks," adds Purpuro, now a Washington D.C. e-campaign consultant. The genius of Joe Trippi, Dean's onetime campaign manager, Purpuro says, was his "visionary ability to let go and allow for the full flourishing of a bottom-up movement."

Dean allowed supporters to take the initiative independently in a rapidly evolving and decentralized e-campaign. His Dean Defense Forces -- an online SWAT team -- countered negative attacks with quick-fire missives to hardcore supporters. Pro-Dean messages flowed into supporters' cell-phone inboxes. And the free-flowing journals of bloggers helped drum up so much support that the Dean camp smashed all records for online fundraising, transforming a little-known candidate into the Democratic front-runner.

Dean's meteoric rise and the rapid unraveling of his campaign are still being digested by political operatives on both sides of the aisle. Today, a new generation of Internet political consultants debate constantly on how to strike the right balance between campaign discipline and firing up the troops online.

"In Internet politics, there is just 'before Dean' and 'after Dean,' " says Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University. "Before, people just looked at [the Internet] as interesting high-tech bells and whistles but not anything they had to do. Now they realize they have to use it offensively or defensively."

Working the Web on the stump

Dean mentioned his Web site in every speech and even gestured onstage during one campaign stop in a way that could only be understood by online supporters. It was the political equivalent of playing the Beatles' White Album backward for an enchanted core of supporters. Kerry has learned to mention his Web site in every address -- even if his ponderous cadence makes him "sound like someone's grandfather discovering e-mail," jibes Dan Gillmor, a technology columnist who is writing a book on blogs. So far Bush has mentioned his campaign's Web site just once, during a speech in Florida.

The Kerry campaign is far more straitlaced than the Deaniacs', but it does emulate some elements of Dean's sprawling e-campaign. Kerry staffers are encouraging stalwarts of the Dean campaign to join them. Kerry also just signed up Moveon.org activist Zack Exley, who is expected to bring the same brand of satirical humor to the Kerry Internet campaign that he brought to his anti-Republican Web site, GWBush.com.

And nothing on the official Bush-Cheney Web site has the same hip, minimalist style as the Kerry blog The Point, written by Peter Daou. But then, being hip may be overrated when it comes to winning the election, says conservative Washington e-consultant and blogger William Greene. "Being hip is for a much younger demographic [that] doesn't vote as much," he says. "It will only do so much for you."

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