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Online stumping? MTV chats? These are not their fathers' methods of campaigning. Welcome, candidates, to . . . : The New World

January 29, 1996|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HANOVER, N.H. — When the mass blitz hit two weeks ago, popping the message onto the computer screen of every student at Dartmouth College, the brothers of Alpha Delta paid particular attention.

After all, the e-mail-announced event would be at their fraternity house.

But political observers and operatives will likely find more interest in the missive's method of delivery--every Dartmouth student must have a computer hard-wired into a central system--and in the sequence of its phrasing: "Be on TV with Tabitha Soren!" it said. "Meet Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole."

Thirty-five years ago last week, John F. Kennedy gave America its first live, televised presidential news conference.

Twenty-five years ago last July, Congress ratified the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age to 18.

Today, electronic media and politics have fused, and the nation's youngest voting block, 18 to 24, may be the only one completely comfortable with that confluence.

In an election year in which the GOP has the only real roadshow going, expect more of the same: Conservative candidates will dash from their gigs at evangelical churches to fling themselves into the youth culture like mosh-pit stage divers. And purveyors of pop, criticized from pulpits nationwide, will sing their loud and lascivious siren songs to a new breed of rockin' young Republicans.

At Dartmouth on Jan. 20, Dole, the front-running candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, gave the 1996 campaign its techno-kickoff. After addressing the fraternity, he climbed aboard MTV's new, totally wired "Choose or Lose" mobile media bus for an online cyberchat, followed by a rolling interview with reporter Soren.

Off campus, at the Dartmouth Review--a student weekly notorious for what critics see as right-wing recklessness--editor E. Davis Brewer Jr. was shaking off a hangover one afternoon a week before MTV's arrival.

During winter break, Brewer worked for candidate Steve Forbes. But he also likes commentator Patrick Buchanan's strong stand on social issues, he said. And he thinks Dole is on target in his withering critique of Hollywood.

"I think our popular culture is in complete decline," Brewer said, sitting on the ratty couch he's been sleeping on in a room where a shelf displays rum, vodka and single malt Scotch bottles, and the wall offers portraits of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the pope.

Brewer reconciles his carousing and conservatism with a smile: "I think that a little sin is good for the soul. I don't think the problems in our country can really be attributed to the fact that some college kids drink too much."

Over at Alpha Delta, the day before Dole's appearance, Duff Kuhnert, a 22-year-old chemistry major, sat at a big Macintosh computer beneath a makeshift plywood loft and demonstrated the campuswide network by sending a message to his roommate, Jaime Keeman, who worked on another linked Mac six feet away.

After scrolling through a list of upcoming fraternity parties to an announcement of the upcoming Dole event, Kuhnert clicked into MTV's America Online site, where that appearance was listed along with news stories about Mariah Carey, Tupac Shakur and rumors of a Sex Pistols reunion.

With their computers crammed into one tiny room, Brewer and Keeman are able to devote a second small living space to the other campus mainstay: an entertainment center.

The preferred channel in the fraternity house is ESPN, they said, but MTV gets its share of viewers too. Clicking on that channel, Kuhnert and Keeman took a moment to watch as bikini-clad young women preened in a segment called "MTV's Ultimate Winter Vacation."

Then they went back to their studies and to getting the house ready for Dole.

Students who kept watching into the early morning would have encountered a video by rapper Erick Sermon. In it, a white man in a business suit intimates that he is under "direct orders from Senator Dole."

What orders? Orders to wipe out Sermon and perhaps all of rap culture, the video jokingly implies.

Such are the odd political and cultural juxtapositions of the Information Age.

In 1992, it struck political handlers as "heretical" when then-Gov. Bill Clinton appeared on the "Arsenio Hall Show" and MTV, recalled Mandy Grunwald, a media advisor for the campaign at the time.

Four years later, she said, that "pop culture strategy" is widely accepted as part of a new political truism: "You can't reach MTV voters in traditional ways."

In their book on politics and media, "White House to Your House" (MIT Press, 1995), Edwin Diamond and Robert Silverman describe then-President George Bush's reluctant, last-minute decision to go the MTV route and be interviewed by Soren in 1992: "He looked," they wrote, "about as comfortable with Soren as a father talking to his teenage daughter about safe sex."

Since then, though, more politicians have gotten hip to the culture. And MTV has grown increasingly serious and sophisticated in its coverage.

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