Politics spins a new web
Hopefuls turn to interactive sites to click with new voters
When Democrat Larry Kissell started running for Congress a few months ago, he'd never heard of a couple of guys called "Anglico" and "Targater," or their new project, BlueNC.com.
Tech-savvy Republican Vernon Robinson hadn't heard of YouTube when he launched his congressional campaign.
And Thomas Ravenel, a GOP candidate for S.C. treasurer, never had a MySpace profile.
Now those sites are helping each of the three tap into money and support, and in some cases, build a national following.
Though e-mails and Web sites have become common, a growing number of Carolinas candidates are finding new, interactive ways to use the Internet. They're riding electronic networks like surfers swept along in rushing currents.
"Social networking sites are ways for young folks to connect with each other," says Phil Noble, founder of the Charleston-based PoliticsOnline. "What smart candidates are doing is injecting their campaigns into ongoing conversations of millions of people."
Bloggers like those on BlueNC helped bring Kissell to the attention of activists across the country. Now donors come from far beyond his 8th District, which runs from Charlotte to Fayetteville.
A recycled TV ad that gained new life online brought Robinson nearly $200,000 in two weeks for his race in the 13th District, stretching from Greensboro to Raleigh.
MySpace has helped Ravenel reach a new generation of supporters in South Carolina. His profile includes his astrological sign (Leo)and sexual orientation (straight).
Few candidates are as sophisticated about the cyber-possibilities as Democrat John Edwards, North Carolina's former U.S. senator and probable 2008 presidential candidate.
His site features podcasts, blogs and chat rooms. Average citizens upload video questions. Supporters soon will get mobile alerts on their cell phones.
"We're seeing a change in the way people are engaging," says Julie Germany, deputy director of the Washington-based Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet. "People are engaging online. And they're taking that activism offline."
Spreading the message
Running for Congress two years ago, Robinson aired a TV ad called "The Twilight Zone." To the soundtrack of the old TV show, it blasted homosexuals, illegal immigrants and supporters of abortion rights. It even showed Jesse Jackson in a police lineup.This year Robinson put it on his Web site. Bloggers picked it up. So did Rush Limbaugh. "Hardball" host Chris Matthews found it on YouTube, a nine-month-old Web site that has 20 million visitors a month.
"If you're an indistinguishable candidate that has the same blow-dried hair and the same indistinguishable message ... you won't do very well in this medium," says Robinson. "Conservatives want somebody to take a stand. Liberals want somebody to take a stand. And they're frustrated when candidates don't."
Like Robinson, Kissell also has a YouTube following. His video shows people in his hometown of Biscoe lined up for $1.22-per-gallon gas, which he subsidized to call attention to rising prices.
The Montgomery County teacher has become popular with liberal bloggers. He's one of about 20 candidates nationwide endorsed by Netroots, an alliance of leading Democratic-leaning blogs. So far that's helped him raise more than $42,000 online. His own blogs appear on national sites such as the Daily Kos.
"He's exactly why the Netroots say they're in business ... to bring people to the table who otherwise wouldn't be there," says U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, an Alabama Democrat who campaigned with Kissell this month.
That's why James Protzman, a Chapel Hill writer whose screen name is Anglico, has helped Kissell both online and by hosting a fundraiser at his home. Protzman helped found the blog BlueNC.
"Larry's definitely caught a lot of interest because, quite frankly, we don't think the media has done a very good job covering him," Protzman says. "The light's not shining on that race yet, so we're trying to shine it there."
21st-century `soda fountain'
To widen their appeal, S.C. consultant Rod Shealy urged clients Ravenel and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer to sign up on MySpace, a two-year-old site popular with young people.
"It's the soda fountain of today," says Shealy. "Young people of the '50s congregated at the soda fountain. Today they're congregating at MySpace and YouTube."
MySpace boasts profiles on more than 50 million people. Other S.C. candidates -- including Ravenel's 83-year-old opponent -- have entries in Facebook, a similar site that caters to the young.
Some politicians use the Net for quick feedback. Robinson tests messages online before sending them out in direct mail or conventional ads. "In 36 hours you know whether you did a good job," he says.
Robinson's opponent, Democratic Rep. Brad Miller of Raleigh, also is Net-friendly. Less so is Kissell's rival, Republican Rep. Robin Hayes of Concord. Asked if he knows much about blogging, Hayes said, "I know it's something on the Internet."
Noble of PoliticsOnline says politicians are using only a fraction of the Web's potential.
"The great power of the Internet is its power to reform politics by finding ways to put people back in charge, and that goes around power-brokers," he says. "That's its radical potential. It's democracy with a little `d.' "
A look at two who are involved in the political arena on the Internet.
Screen name: "The Southern Dem." Slogan: "Sometimes leaning right... Usually leaning left... Always with an opinion."Who she really is: Charlotte mom Betsy Muse, 44.
Where she posts: On her own site, The Southern Dem, on BlueNC and other blogs.
A recent post: "Saturday was the first day that Larry Kissell and Robin Hayes attended the same campaign event. I've been working much of the afternoon doing my best to write a serious piece ...My plans were to do a mature piece devoid of snark, sarcasm or silly photoshop pictures. Yeah....Like that's gonna happen."
Why she does it: "Probably what we do best is connect people with like ideas. ... We fancy ourselves as people who can have a little more freedom probably than a corporate journalist. We don't have an editor who says we have to balance the story. It isn't necessarily about being fair and balanced. I feel like I'm digging for the truth."
Why Democrats appear to be more active bloggers: "Unfortunately it's easier to rant than to rave," says Phil Noble of PoliticsOnline, himself a Democrat. "We've seen Internet activism organized and directed more effectively against things and candidates than for."
Name: Thomas Ravenel, 44.
Running for: S.C. state treasurer.
Internet niche: MySpace.
What it says about him: He's single (but in a relationship), straight, has an athletic build and is a Leo. It also has his platform and brief bio.
How it differs from his official Web site: "It's a little hipper."
Why he does it: "We want to stay ahead of the curve. I think South Carolina, in its policies and adherence to the status quo ... is one reason we're behind the other 49 states. I'm all about new approaches."
What the site has done for him: It's helped recruit new volunteers. Two of his county campaign chairmen were people who signed up as "friends."
People who've signed to be his "friend": As of last week, 160, including one purporting to be South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier.
Ravenel's rules: "Friends" have to be 18 or older. No bathing suit pictures allowed.
Caught on the Net
Several politicians have felt the sting of Internet politics this year.
• In Connecticut, thousands of people saw YouTube replays of President Bush appearing to kiss U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman during the State of the Union. In last month's Democratic primary, it was a kiss of death. Net activists helped Ned Lamont defeat Lieberman.
• At a rally in Virginia, a video camera caught Republican U.S. Sen. George Allen referring to a dark-skinned man in the crowd as "macaca." To critics the remark was racially insensitive. The resulting furor -- fed by thousands of replays on YouTube -- forced him to apologize.
• In South Carolina, Republican Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer's MySpace page included "friends" who submitted scantily clad pictures and it linked to a racy discussion group called "Matt's Mom is HOTT." The photos and link disappeared after a story about it in the Greenville News.