WASHINGTON — As the 2008 presidential campaign gets rolling, Google Inc. wants to be every candidate's running mate.
That was clear early one morning this month, when about 80 bleary-eyed political and advocacy group consultants crowded into a college lecture hall here and listened intently to campaign tips from an unlikely source: three guys from Google.
The trio, including the head of the company's newly formed political sales team, conducted an hourlong seminar about maximizing Google's products for political purposes, including what videos resonate on YouTube and how to propel websites up the search engine rankings.
"They're more keen to the desires and the needs of the political campaigns," Eric Anderson, online marketing director for the Republican National Committee, said after attending the company's seminar.
Google's acquisition of YouTube last fall thrust the famously "content neutral" Web giant headlong into the partisan world. And its competitors, including Yahoo Inc. and NewsCorp.'s MySpace, are hot after the same market.
YouTube had already shown its effectiveness last summer, after it helped torpedo the reelection campaign of Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who was videotaped using a word perceived as a racial slur to refer to a man of Indian descent who worked for his opponent.
And last week YouTube demonstrated its power again when it set the political world buzzing with a spoof of a famous Apple Inc. ad featuring a Barack Obama supporter heaving a sledgehammer into a video image of Hillary Clinton.
YouTube isn't the only reason Google is reaching out to campaigns, but it helped accelerate the process, said Elliot Schrage, the company's vice president of global communications and public affairs.
"I think the difference is we are now recognizing that this is a segment that we have to pay attention to in a way that we hadn't," he said.
Google isn't the only major Web company to reach that conclusion as the Internet continues to evolve as a political platform. MySpace last week launched a channel featuring pages created by 10 presidential campaigns. And Yahoo recently tied all its election content and services together at election.yahoo.com, and is even planning to give its instant-message users the ability to dress their online images in presidential campaign T-shirts.
"There's so much activity taking place on Yahoo, why shouldn't we be making it easier for voters to engage?" said Cyrus Krohn, Yahoo's director of election strategy.
Google appears to be the most aggressive in reaching out to campaigns, suggesting that the Web giant thinks online politics may be approaching the point at which the company can make money from it.
"There's probably a lot less than they think initially, but Google plays for the long term and they're smart to be there," said Phil Noble, founder of PoliticsOnline, a site that provides Internet tools and strategies for campaigns. "The Internet and politics is a revolution, and Google and these guys are not going to lead the revolution, but they don't want to get shot in the back either."
Google isn't in it just for the campaign spending, Schrage said.
"Relative to all of the dollars in advertising, I don't think political advertising is going to be particularly profound in the foreseeable future," he said. The company hopes to learn from how campaigns use Google's tools and simply wants to help the democratic process, Schrage added.
Most of the Internet activity already generated by the slew of 2008 presidential contenders is at little cost.
"We have an official channel at YouTube. We have official social networking platforms at MySpace and Facebook," said Christian Ferry, national e-campaign director for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "I think that the stuff that's really having the most impact is the free services that those groups provide."
Campaigns spent about $12 million on online advertising in the 2004 presidential campaign, a tiny amount compared with the $1.6 billion they allocated to TV ads, said Michael A. Bassik, vice president of Internet strategy for MSCH Partners, an online political marketing firm.
But campaign spending overall is shooting up. The amount spent on all political races in 2004 -- about $4 billion -- is expected to more than double in 2008. And just as many major companies are doing, political campaigns are expected to shift more of their ad dollars to the Web.
Google wants to be ready when that happens.
For the first time, it was a major sponsor of an annual conference for political consultants and Internet activists run by George Washington University.
Google signs were everywhere during the two-day event this month. A Google Lounge with lava lamps and rock music offered attendees free use of half a dozen Web-connected laptops. Schrage delivered the keynote address. And at its seminar for consultants, "Making the Most of Google in 2008," the company offered, next to the free travel coffee mugs, copies of a two-page "Google Product Guide for Politics."
"The Google network allows you to do very interesting things with targeting, with messaging, etc., in a way that you could never pull off with a 30-second TV spot," Derek Kuhl, who is leading a New York-based political sales team that will have three or four people, told the group.
The consultants scribbled notes as they sipped coffee, then peppered the Google employees with questions, seeking details such as the average length of videos on YouTube and the length of the approval process to buy ads on search results.
"They were out essentially selling a product: Use us," David Haase, a consultant with Mindshare Interactive Campaigns in Washington, said afterward. "They're trying to become the gold standard."