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YouTube follows the campaign trail

This presidential election, Web videos hold the potential to sway voters.

July 06, 2007|Jocelyn Noveck | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Given all that's at stake in the 2008 presidential race, it's a bit terrifying to realize that by one measure a major role is being played by an aspiring model, actress, fashion designer and former beauty pageant contestant named Amber.

That's Amber Lee Ettinger, a.k.a. Obama Girl, whose racy Web video "I Got a Crush on Obama" has gotten more than 2 million hits in the three weeks it's been online, making it one of the most-watched political videos this season.

Some of us have gotten so used to our daily fix of Web videos it's hard to remember that back in 2004, when President Bush spoke of "the Internets," there was no YouTube.

Three years later, people are calling this the YouTube election -- in which anyone with a minicam or even a mere cellphone can conceivably affect the outcome. "Some of the best, the most innovative stuff is going to come from some voter out there who changes the entire complexion of the race," says Joe Trippi, former campaign manager for Howard Dean in 2004 and now advisor to the John Edwards campaign.

And that's a scary thing for campaigns, which are used to controlling their own message and enforcing it from the top down.

So what's a campaign manager to do? Fight back, with all the technology available: MySpace and Facebook profiles, candidates' own online communities, text-messaging networks. On Sen. Barack Obama's site, you can download ring tones with snippets of his speeches set to a rock or hip-hop motif.

But Web video is the big battlefield. Here's a brief guide to some must-see viewing -- some candidate-approved, and some candidate-definitely-not-approved:

Going high tech: Web video has given one candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a crucial chance to try to warm up her image. "Let's chat," she urged voters when she opened her campaign online. She's made fun of her questionable singing skills, since others were doing so anyway. And in her "Sopranos" spoof, her campaign sought to catch the wave of a pop-culture phenomenon, mimicking that famous diner ending (some would say non-ending) and even scoring a cameo from the character Johnny Sack.

No matter that the video had nothing to do with any issues. Half a million people viewed it on the Clinton site the first day, another half-million the next day, and so many on YouTube and other sites that the campaign estimates several million have now watched it. Not to mention the inevitable spoofs that this spoof has spawned.

"The word 'viral' is overused, but here it's apt," says Peter Daou, Internet director for the Clinton campaign. "We're trying to use online video in all different ways. This is new for all of us." Some of those ways: HillCasts, Hillary TV and the HillCam, with constant video of the candidate traveling across Iowa this week.

The "Sopranos" video was aimed at showing that Clinton has a sense of humor. She probably didn't find it so humorous when the Orwellian "Hillary 1984" video came out earlier this year, a mash-up of a classic Apple ad, depicting Clinton as a Big Brother-type figure. The ad, produced by a renegade employee of a company hired to design Obama's website, has now been seen by a whopping 4 million or so on YouTube.

Going low tech: When the Edwards campaign was doing a fundraising push ahead of the candidate's 54th birthday this month, they offered his mother's pecan pie recipe to donors. Trippi and deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince decided to try the recipe. They baked it and uploaded their amateur video -- with a cameo from Elizabeth Edwards seeking donations -- to YouTube. "We brought in close to $300,000," says Trippi. "All we spent was a couple of bucks for the milk and eggs."

On a more serious note, the campaign was able to capitalize on a recent talk-show confrontation between Elizabeth Edwards and conservative author Ann Coulter, immediately posting the video and using it in a new fundraising push.

Oops: Here's a low-tech video Edwards would rather forget. Most people fix their hair before going on TV -- but this old footage shows him primping for two minutes and is deviously set to "I Feel Pretty" from "West Side Story."

Combined with stories about expensive haircuts, for some it likely plays into characterizations of Edwards as the "Breck" candidate.

Oops again: GOP hopeful John McCain channeled his inner Beach Boy when, asked at a gathering in South Carolina about possible military action against Iran, he replied with a takeoff on the 1965 hit "Barbara Ann": "Bomb, bomb Iran ... "

Criticized after the amateur video surfaced, McCain responded: "Lighten up and get a life."

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