WASHINGTON — As the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns pound each other through television commercials, some of their strategists are looking beyond channel surfers to an audience that may be ready for a new wave of political advertising: Web surfers.
Online industry experts estimate politicians will spend $25 million this year on online ads in federal, state and local campaigns.
That's a tiny fraction of the $1.3 billion or more projected for television spending. But several factors point to growth in online political ads: an expanding number of Internet users, wider use of the medium by major commercial advertisers and incentives built into federal law.
The 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law placed sharp limits on using campaign donations to pay for broadcast TV and radio ads, especially in the two months before an election. But the law was silent on the use of large checks from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals -- contributions known as "soft money" -- to finance Internet ads. In a possible harbinger of future e-campaigns, visitors to websites such as Music.com, Accuweather.com and TVGuide.com in recent days have been greeted by one of the year's first online political attacks.
The banner and pop-up ads placed by the Republican National Committee on about 1,400 sites starting March 19 attacked presumptive Democratic nominee John F. Kerry for his vote last year against spending $87 billion for military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kerry has said he supported a version of the reconstruction bill that would have offset the price tag by rolling back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. The ads allowed viewers to click to a transcript and video from a Sunday talk show in which the Massachusetts senator was grilled about the vote.
"It's one more way to reach out to voters, but it's a very new medium," said RNC spokeswoman Christine Iverson. "We're on the frontier right now of figuring out how to use the Internet effectively for political communications."
Last year, several Democratic presidential contenders experimented with online ads. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina promoted his advocacy of abortion rights and clean air in October on several news websites, including WashingtonPost.com and CNN.com.
In addition to online ad purchases, campaigns are increasingly using e-mail to communicate with activists and raise money, following trails blazed last year by former candidate Howard Dean.
President Bush attacked Kerry as "unprincipled" in a video e-mailed on Feb. 12 to millions of supporters. Kerry responded two weeks later by sending to backers a similar video that accused Bush of a "series of broken promises" on jobs, education and healthcare.
House and Senate members also have become more technologically adept. Ten years after Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) launched what was believed to be the first campaign website by a federal officeholder, every member of Congress now has a site. And many are making extensive use of the Internet and e-mail to reach voters.
In Pennsylvania, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter has assembled an e-mail list of nearly 300,000 names and built a network of websites to help fend off a strong primary challenge this year. Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) is promoting his campaign website on search engines Google and Yahoo.
"A new front has opened up," said Michael Cornfield, an online-politics expert at George Washington University in Washington.
"There's still the air war, and the ground war," he said, referring to television ads and voter-turnout efforts. "But now there's the cyber-war."
Some strategists, convinced of the power of television, are skeptical.
"At this stage of the game, the Internet is far more valuable as an organizational tool and a fundraising tool than a persuasion medium," said Democratic media consultant David Doak.
Presidential campaigns ran a few Internet ads in 2000. In one little-noticed venture, which Cornfield reports in his book "Politics Moves Online," Democratic nominee Al Gore spent about $100,000 just before the election to advertise on Yahoo and America Online.
This year, in a rare instance of bipartisan praise, some key Republicans and Democratic strategists are admiring each other's Internet handiwork.
In a speech this month to an online politics conference at George Washington University, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman complimented the technological innovations of the Dean campaign.
He noted Dean's use of the Web diaries known as "blogs," and his aggressive use of online fundraising that helped transform the obscure former Vermont governor into the onetime leader of the Democratic pack.
Mehlman said communication devices have transformed politics. He pointed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's use of radio to reassure Americans during the Depression and World War II. Similarly, he said, President Kennedy's instinct for television helped redefine the talents required of successful politicians.