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Internet the Back Alley of Choice for Bare-Knuckle Political Brawls

Bush and Kerry use the Web to deliver harsh attacks. It's cheap, effective and bypasses the scrutiny of TV ads.

July 01, 2004|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — While television remains the main arena for this year's political slugfest between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry, the Internet has become a back alley where the two rivals and their surrogates are throwing some of their most bare-knuckled punches.

The cyberspace combat offers a glimpse of innovative tactics that politicians increasingly may rely on after decades of using 30-second TV commercials as the dominant vehicle for delivering campaign messages.

Last week, the Bush campaign e-mailed a 78-second video to millions of supporters that included images of Adolf Hitler amid a stream of Democrats inveighing against the president.

Ensuing protests over the video's use of images of the Nazi dictator led Bush aides to add a 20-second disclaimer saying the Hitler clips had first been used against him by liberal opponents.

But the controversial video remained on the campaign website Wednesday; his aides defended it as a call to arms for Republican loyalists.

Likewise, Kerry has used Internet videos to attack Bush, even as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee claims to be taking the high road with positive television advertising.

One 50-second video, "Time's Up," says Bush broke promises on healthcare and uses a meter to count the days until the end of his term. Another, the 57-second "Very First Bush Budget," uses computer animation to mock the president's spending plans as the failed exercise of a schoolboy who struggled with elementary mathematics.

Neither these videos nor others on the Kerry website quite fit the traditional format and tone of 30- and 60-second TV ads. All are more contentious than almost anything his campaign has broadcast on TV since the Massachusetts senator effectively wrapped up the Democratic presidential race in early March.

Experts say the proliferation of Internet video attacks reflects the need for different tactics in a fiercely fought campaign. TV ads largely are aimed at the small number of undecided voters in a narrow group of states. Internet videos are meant to rile up the already committed, no matter where they log on.

"It's a chance to talk to the faithful, remind them why they're voting and show them some edgy [messages]," said John Durham, an Internet political advertising consultant based in San Francisco whose clients have included the Bush campaign. "We're not constrained on the Web by the usual, traditional boundaries."

Unlike TV commercials, Internet videos can be as long or short as their sponsors want. They also bypass scrutiny from TV station managers and network executives, and face less regulation under federal campaign laws. Analysts say these factors are likely to spur wider use of the videos in future elections.

The potential audience for them is growing fast. A June survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 66% of Americans now go online to use the Internet or get e-mail, up from 54% in 2000. Nearly three in 10 go online at least three days a week to get news. Many of these users are also better-equipped to download and play streaming video, because of the rise of broadband.

Democrats, Republicans and allied groups still pour the lion's share of their budgets into buying TV air time. Such expenses totaled more than $170 million through June, according to TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group.

They have done only a modest amount of advertising on commercial websites, according to data from Nielsen//NetRatings and other Internet monitors. In May, Bush ran an education-related ad on Yahoo and other sites, while Kerry ran fundraising appeals on the New York Times' site and elsewhere.

Instead, the Internet videos are largely flowing through e-mail lists developed by the two major parties. Postings on widely trafficked partisan websites also give the messages more public exposure.

For campaigns, this approach has several advantages. First, it costs little to produce and distribute the videos. Second, they frequently get an extra publicity bounce through news coverage. Third, the videos occasionally are able to plant controversial messages without risking the potential backlash that might occur through TV advertising.

"You do an ad, you put it on your website and you don't have to pay for TV time," said Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University. "If it's outrageous enough, it gets picked up [by news media], and you get to have your cake and eat it too."

Bush began attacking Kerry with an Internet video in mid-February -- weeks before he criticized the Democrat through TV commercials. In the video "Unprincipled," a narrator typed Kerry's name and "special interests" into a Web search engine and turned up contacts between the senator and lobbyist donations. The video questioned whether Kerry funneled favors to his donors.

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