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October 12, 2002

American political consultants are obsessed with controlling their candidates' messages. In an era of calculated, focus-group-inspired political discourse, these smooth political operators believe that the fewer issues a politician is known to care about, the fewer interest groups will be upset.

Project Vote Smart, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, is trying to cut the doubletalk. The group got its start during the 1992 elections, with founding board members that included Newt Gingrich, George McGovern and Michael Dukakis. The group sends out surveys to tens of thousands of national and state candidates, asking them to go on the record on a range of issues both controversial and forgotten, from abortion to affirmative action, from online voting to bus subsidies.

All that information, including recent responses from candidates in California's gubernatorial, congressional, state Assembly and Senate races in November, is posted on the organization's unsophisticated but jam-packed Web site, www.vote-smart.org. Use the hyphen. Click on the "candidates" button, then scroll down to the third starred paragraph and click on California. For help, call (888) VOTE-SMART (868-3762).

An online political information bank was of limited use in reaching voters even two years ago. But as of April, more than 165 million Americans were wired, up from about 124 million in February 2000, according to Nielsen Net Ratings. Users' level of cyber-sophistication is higher.

Vote Smart's online database finally has the potential to inexpensively reach a majority of voters awash in misleading political advertising. The group's Web site provides issue briefs, voting records and concrete policy positions for even the most low-profile state Assembly races, promoting issue-oriented campaigns and a better-informed electorate.

Voters can find out what their congressional candidates think about school vouchers and the estate tax, even if those turn out not to be big campaign issues. They will be better able to gauge who is influenced by which fat campaign checks when a questionnaire comes back with the AFL-CIO's party line in the free-trade section, or positions on gun control copied from the National Rifle Assn. handbook.

Perhaps as important as the candidates' responses, though, is who completes the surveys. Gov. Gray Davis didn't, and his GOP challenger, Bill Simon Jr., did, for instance. Favored incumbents often figure the less said the better.

Check out the Web site to see which candidates in your district have the guts to provide the public with a record of policy positions to live up to and which bend to the political consultants who unapologetically control their campaign message.

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