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Edwardses want to build a community online--as well as a campaign 

John Edwards greets the hometown crowd at his homecoming rally Saturday in Chapel Hill's Southern Village after announcing his run for the presidency.

Photo by Jenny Warburg

John Edwards greets the hometown crowd at his homecoming rally Saturday in Chapel Hill's Southern Village after announcing his run for the presidency.

It should not be surprising that the announcement by former U.S. Sen. John Edwards that he was joining the field of declared contenders for the presidency was preceded by the release of Edwards talking about what he was going to talk about on YouTube.

If there has been anything that has marked a difference between John and Elizabeth Edwards and others testing the waters, it's their grasp of the Web as a tool for action—particularly as a way to build networks.

That the last presidential race did not make better use of the networking abilities of the Net is one of Elizabeth Edwards' peeves. Her experiences online in sharing and hearing stories from others about battles with cancer, the loss of loved ones, and even her obsession with Tar Heel basketball have made her a believer in the power of online social communities.

She has been known to jump into discussions on local and national blogs and doesn't seem likely to log off anytime soon, despite columnist Robert Novak's recent advice that she stay home and bake cookies.

About two months ago, in an event similar to dozens around the country, the Edwardses hosted a dinner for North Carolina bloggers—a frank, off-the-record discussion that went on for a couple of hours. Maybe because it was a rather geeky home crowd, the liveliest part of the conversation was not on the burning issues of the day but on the prospects and promise of the Web as a civic space—a place where social networks could help translate ideas into actual change. Some of this was in the context of politics and the acknowledgement that in the last presidential race, the GOP did a lot better job of using tools like neighborhood listservs and community-based online organizing to get voters to the polls.

Online politics has been transformed by MySpace and Facebook and the GOP's prized Voter Vault system. It's no longer just a clever way to add to the list of numbers for the round of robocalls the weekend before Election Day. This is the new world brave, strange and otherwise of tags and feeds and adding friends and finding—together—something to watch, listen, talk about and do.

Though Edwards' announcement was a made-for-old-media event that for a moment refocused attention and cameras on the plight of the Gulf Coast and Edwards' signature issue of poverty, the backbone of his campaign is online. One Corps, the volunteer organization Edwards introduced along with his announcement, is an experiment in mobilizing groups formed online into action.

Action and not change is the operative word here. In his two days in New Orleans, where he announced from the Ninth Ward, the series of whistle-stops in early primary states and the homecoming celebration last Saturday on the new urbanist village green of Chapel Hill's Southern Village, Edwards' message has been to get off the couch. It's an experiment in using Net politics to do more than raise money and get volunteers out to the rally.

"We're not going to wait for the election," Edwards said in a conference call with North Carolina bloggers the night before he announced. The country can't wait two years to start fixing its problems. Besides, he said, "The idea that some politician is going to come along and save us is nonsense."

Correction

In last month's strangest political stories of 2006 column, an item about Jim Black and Michael Decker left the impression that Black has admitted to handing over a bag of checks to Decker in a Salisbury restaurant, as Decker testified in federal court. Though Black admitted meeting Decker, he disputes Decker's account and says no money—checks or otherwise—changed hands during the meeting. After Decker's trial, Black's lawyer said the speaker only helped Decker raise campaign money after he switched parties.

Kirk Ross travels the state for CapeFearMercury.com and writes about state governance at ExileonJonesStreet.com. He can be reached at editor@capefearmercury.com.

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