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The State | THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Web Sites Make Inroads, but Fail to Rule Campaign

Despite the Internet's popularity, candidates still rely on TV and traditional media.

October 02, 2003|James Rainey and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

Seven years after its debut as a political novelty, three years after it helped thrust U.S. Sen. John McCain to center stage for the Republican presidential nomination, the Internet's power and limitations are again on display in the California recall election.

Some of the first sparks for removing Gov. Gray Davis from office flashed across computer screens. Petitions delivered online generated as many as one-third of the 1.4 million signatures needed to force Tuesday's vote on recalling the governor. And in the race to replace Davis, the Web has snagged an abundance of small contributions for candidates, offered regular journals (known as Web logs, or blogs) for Davis' wife and others, and provided the campaign's most arch humor -- including a cartoon likeness of President Bush dancing in thong and pasties.

Laughter and money, however, do not a victory make. The two men who now appear most likely to win next week -- Davis and Republican movie hero Arnold Schwarzenegger -- have not been particularly reliant on computer communications. They do have Web sites, but both have relied mainly on television commercials and traditional media to spread their messages.

"The thing about the Internet is, you can't get liftoff for a campaign but, once you get flying, it can be very powerful fuel," said Ace Smith, a longtime Democratic political operative who is helping out Howard Dean's presidential campaign and Davis' anti-recall effort.

Kam Kuwata, a veteran consultant for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others, agreed. "At one point, targeted mail was new. At one point, talk radio was new. Now the Internet is new," Kuwata said. "It's a tool that can be used and can work. But for every Web site that succeeds, there are Internet sites that fail and don't go anywhere."

Still, there are signs in this unusual election that cyberspace is becoming a more integral piece of the political world, taking a place alongside town hall meetings and TV spots.

"This is the year the Internet came into its own with respect to politics," said Barbara O'Connor. The director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento noted that half of Californians now have access to the Internet from their homes.

Campaign experts say the Internet works best when it taps into established organizations and into emotions already roiling in the electorate.

Much has been made of how presidential candidate Howard Dean has used the Internet to raise millions of dollars and surge to the front of the Democratic field. But campaign experts agree that Dean's Internet appeal has succeeded, in large part, because it tied into powerful antiwar and gay rights sentiments that other candidates were not expressing.

That, in turn, made Dean attractive to existing online organizations with long membership lists.

The Democratic fund-raising group MoveOn.org -- first formed to fight the impeachment of President Clinton -- adopted Dean this year and helped him attract nearly $15 million in contributions for the quarter that finished Tuesday. Similarly, in the spring, several hundred Dean backers began organizing independently through www.Meetup.com, a Web site dedicated to linking people with similar interests. That network grew to more than 100,000 Dean backers.

In the California recall, petitions printed straight from the Internet got the campaign underway before Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) paid for professionals to gather signatures.

On the other side of the recall question, meanwhile, MoveOn.org has urged its 1.6 million members to help beat back the recall. Even MoveOn members outside the state have played a part, phoning strangers in California and reading from an e-mailed script to urge a "no" vote on Tuesday.

Last week, MoveOn member Lucy Bickett came home from her job managing a construction office in Louisville, Ky., and settled onto her sofa with her cell phone and a list of California voters e-mailed by MoveOn. She reached 15 voters from Eureka and Pinole in Northern California to Claremont and Beverly Hills, and most seemed receptive to her message, she said. "I was very excited."

"The irony of this is you are using this new technology, but it's to set up these old-fashioned human contacts like you might have seen years ago," said Bill Hillman, who created ads for Jesse Ventura's successful run for governor of Minnesota and assisted recall candidate Arianna Huffington, before she dropped out of the race Tuesday.

Like Dean's on the national stage, California Republican Tom McClintock's recall bid has tapped into an issue with strong emotional resonance -- the tripling of the car tax -- to draw attention to his Web site, www.helptom.com. The site, in turn, has attracted more than $500,000, about one-third of all McClintock donations, mostly in increments of less than $100, said the site's coordinator, Mike O'Young.

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