St. Petersburg Times Online: World and Nation

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Campaign swings include visit to Internet

This is the first presidential campaign where all of the major candidates are using Web sites to go along with traditional television ads to get their messages out to voters.

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 22, 1999


From the spare bedroom in his St. Petersburg home, Bill Wallace uses his computer to check out the new television advertisements presidential candidate Bill Bradley is airing in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"I was looking at them last night, and they're well thought out and timely," Wallace, a retiree and Bradley supporter, said last week. "It is amazing what we can get over the Internet."

As the race for president evolves from a ground war of fundraisers and endorsements to an air war of television ads, voters no longer have to live in states with early caucuses or primaries to monitor the battle.

With a few clicks of a mouse, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can see the same ads that presidential candidates are broadcasting in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. All of the major candidates are posting their ads on their Web pages.

Click.

There is Bradley's spot from Iowa and New Hampshire featuring New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the tag line, "It can happen."

Click.

After scenes of suburban and urban kids, there is George W. Bush declaring "every child must be educated because there are no second-rate children and no second-rate dreams."

Click.

There is John McCain's South Carolina ad, featuring grainy black-and-white footage from his days as a fighter pilot and prisoner of war.

The impact of making these targeted messages available beyond Iowa's farms and New Hampshire's small towns is difficult to gauge.

This is the first presidential campaign where all of the major candidates have Web sites. About 70 percent of voting-age adults will have access to the Internet by the 2000 elections, and 43 percent of all adults who are online will use the Internet for political purposes, according to recent studies.

Yet the Internet is no substitute for television ads for presidential campaigns, even in smaller states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Both Democrats, Bradley and Vice President Al Gore, and Republicans Bush, McCain and Steve Forbes are on the air in early states as they make a push for attention before the holidays. Only Forbes, the multimillionaire publisher, is airing ads nationwide -- and he is sticking to cable channels for now.

For everybody else, there is the Internet.

"Now anybody anywhere can look at their ads, and I think there is an educational value to it," said Lewis Wolfson, professor emeritus of communications at American University in Washington. "I think it's great."

The risk for presidential candidates unintentionally angering voters in other states who see an ad on their Web site that was designed for New Hampshire is minimal, said an official with a new Internet site that posts campaign commercials.

"If you go to the Forbes site, you want information on Steve Forbes," said Mike McGill of FreedomChannel.com, which posts ads and longer 90-second messages from candidates and advocacy groups. "So why not have the ad there to reinforce those views?"

But the days of candidates tailoring their messages to television viewers in different states, always a risky venture, appear to be over. With the Internet, any discrepancies are seen instantly. It doesn't take several days to filter out of Washington over all-news cable TV stations.

"If you do that, the world finds out pretty quickly," said Chris Lehane, Gore's campaign spokesman. "With the advent of the Internet, there is a direct pipeline into people's offices and bedrooms, and voters are pretty sophisticated and savvy."

They have to be to cut through the sniping that already has started over television ads.

Gore's campaign has called on Bradley to redo his first ad. Aides question the accuracy of a statement by a woman in the ad who says, "When I was pregnant with my second child, Bill Bradley proposed a law that women be allowed to stay in the hospital for 48 hours. Thanks to Sen. Bradley, my daughter is alive today."

The woman's first child developed complications after birth. She was pregnant with her second child when Bradley sponsored the legislation in 1996, but her third child was born without complications after the law was enacted.

"It seems the difficulty with the facts in that ad are matched only by the difficulty with how their numbers add up in their health care plan," Lehane said.

Bradley campaign officials say the woman gives the former New Jersey senator credit because she would have feared giving birth without the law he sponsored.

"We are disturbed that he would call into question this woman's veracity," countered Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser. "They are practicing a pure form of attack politics."

Bradley's ad is interesting for other reasons.

The candidate who claims to disdain focus groups pre-screened the ad for focus groups. And after months of portraying himself as a political outsider despite 18 years in the Senate, the former basketball star's ads feature senators Moynihan and Bob Kerry of Nebraska.

"We've never claimed anything but a mix," Hauser said. "Government experience is a good thing. Other experiences also are good things."

Bush and McCain are each trying to convince voters in South Carolina, home to a large population of veterans, they are worthy of being the nation's commander-in-chief.

The Bush campaign denies its "Dangerous World" ad is a response to McCain, who is gaining ground on Bush in the polls. But Bush, who gave a foreign policy speech Friday in California, is focused on reassuring voters he is up to the job after misnaming Kosovars as "Kosovarians" and failing to recall the leaders of three countries.

"Strengthening the military to keep the peace is a priority for Gov. Bush," campaign spokesman Scott McClellan said.

That ad was not available last week on Bush's Web site, although it can be found at CNN.com. McClellan said the omission is unintentional and that all of the governor's ads eventually will be on the campaign's site.

Forbes' ads are being noticed for what they are not. Instead of attacking Bush as many expected, Forbes' ads remind voters he has specific plans to cut taxes and overhaul Social Security. The idea is to provide a more subtle contrast with Bush, who has been criticized as being too vague.

Wolfson said all candidates may have to think twice about going negative because of the availability of the ads to a wider audience over the Internet.

"They are going to have to be more careful about what they say," he said, "because there are going to be many more people monitoring them."

Despite its potential, the Internet has not replaced more traditional methods of keeping up with political campaigns. Even political junkies can be old school.

Karl Koch of Tampa, who coordinated President Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign in Florida, had trouble calling up Gore's ads on the Web site and gave up.

"Just flipping around the television channels," he said, "I found them on C-Span."

* * *

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.