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Masters of their own domain names 

How are the presidential candidates working the Web?

Three years ago, when the Red Sox were winning and John Kerry was losing, YouTube hadn't even been invented. Now it's used as a medium for presidential debates. MySpace, too, was a baby back then (it had just turned 1), and on the slim chance he was a member, it's a safe bet that Ron Paul had a good deal fewer than 88,476 friends.

Now John Edwards is a committed video blogger, with nearly 250 clips cross-posted on blog.johnedwards.com and YouTube. Millions watched online this summer as the Clintons virally spoofed the final scene of The Sopranos. (Verdict: Bill's a good actor; Hill, not so much.)

Above and beyond multimedia, every major candidate (to varying degrees) has availed him or herself of all the Web has to offer—YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Frappr, Flickzor, del.icio.us, Digg, Technorati, reddit, Newsvine—to amplify his or her message. Web applications that were unheard of during the last election cycle are suddenly de rigueur.

In 2008, a candidate's Web site needs to have more than the address of where to send a check, a sporadically updated blog, and a few photos of glad-handing and baby-smooching. Nearly 50 percent of Americans say they seek out more information on the Web in 2008 than they did in the '04 cycle. It's time to judge the candidates not just on their policy and their campaigning skills, but on how they're using the near-limitless power of the Internet to connect with a tech-savvy electorate.


Navigate:

The Republicans: Mitt Romney | Rudy Giuliani | John McCain | Fred Thompson | Mike Huckabee | Tom Tancredo | Duncan Hunter | Ron Paul | Alan Keyes

The Democrats: Hillary Clinton | Barack Obama | John Edwards | Bill Richardson | Joe Biden | Chris Dodd | Dennis Kucinich | Mike Gravel


THE REPUBLICANS

Mitt Romney

WEB SITE mittromney.com
LOOK FOR Lots and lots of shiny white teeth
LAUGH AT MittMarket, an alliance with auctionpal.com that lets you sell your old household junk and give proceeds to the Mittster
GRADE B-

Romney may hate Massachusetts, but he loves Facebook. He was the first Republican candidate to launch a profile there. He has a substantial presence on MySpace, as well; visiting his MySpace site allows one to check out the pages of his five freshly scrubbed sons. (Craig, somewhat surprisingly, is an indie-rock fan. More amusing, Ben's comment section was, until recently, riddled with ring-tone and penis-enlargement spam.)

For the Romneys, the Web is a family affair. Along with the treasure trove of interviews, debate performances and stump speeches on mittromney.com, you're treated to candid moments with the whole brood when you channel surf the ad spots on MittTV. And at annromney.com, you can get "an insider's perspective" of life on the campaign trail from Romney's high-school-girlfriend-turned-wife. There's also, of course, the Five Brothers blog. Why anyone particularly cares what Romney's sons have to say is a mystery, but one must commend their blogging fervor. So eager are they to post and post again, I imagine, that they're too busy to enlist in the war that they, and their dad, support.

Rudy Giuliani

WEB SITE joinrudy2008.com
LOOK FOR How many 9/11 references can you spot?
LAUGH AT His request that you "Become a Rudy Season Ticket Holder. Set up your recurring donation today!"
GRADE C+

Give Giuliani credit: He finally had the good sense to get rid of the comb-over. (Doubly bold, since these days he's probably too embarrassed to hide his chrome dome beneath a Yankees hat.) It appears he's also keen to keep his Web site as tidy as his hairline. The jingoism—not long ago, the site's main image was the 9/11 mayor staring into the middle distance with steel resolve as the Stars and Stripes rippled majestically behind him—is to be expected. This is a Republican, after all. But Giuliani's an atypical Republican. So perhaps it's not all too surprising to see him embracing multimedia technology more than some in his party, as with his Media Center, replete with streaming radio ads, flash videos (slow to load though they may be) and downloadable widgets to put "Rudy on your blog." All of it's presented in a plain-spoken, easy-to-navigate design. But, of course, even in the virtual world, old-world hard currency is a necessity, which is why you can't miss the big red DONATE button.

Fred Thompson

WEB SITE fred08.com
LOOK FOR Fred08 Official Beanie, Fred08 T Rally Towel, Fred Thompson 2008 Mousepad, Fred Thompson 2008 Titleist Golf Balls
LAUGH AT An article that invites you to "Meet the woman who got Fred Thompson into acting."
GRADE D+

"Oh shit, he's dumb as hell," President Richard Nixon once said about the plainspoken actor/senator. The fact that Thompson recently hired George "Macaca" Allen—a man who saw his Senate candidacy go down in flames in 2006, thanks to the power of YouTube—as his campaign co-chair suggests he hasn't gotten much brighter in the past three decades. (At least Giuliani and Romney were smart enough to distance themselves from their own potential campaign albatrosses: an escort-loving senator and a senator with a wide stance, respectively.)

One thing strikes us when looking at Thompson's site: The dominant color is not red, it's not blue, it's purple. What? Talk about being a wishy-washy flip-flopper. One also can't help but notice the forced, folksy, first-name informality of subsections such as About Fred, Fred Stuff, FDTV, and (in the Fred08 Store) the Fredosphere and FredAcrossAmerica. Doesn't this guy aspire to be, uh, President Thompson? If so, he'd be much better served amping up sections such as Fred File—a video/text blog outlining what he actually stands for—and maybe toning down his disdain for illegal immigrants.

John McCain

WEB SITE johnmccain.com
LOOK FOR John's answer to MySpace: "McCainSpace"
LAUGH AT His continued insistence that he's being persecuted by CNN
GRADE C+

McCain's Web site has been substantially overhauled recently. And while it's not exactly all unicorns and rainbows now, it's more interesting than it was before, when one was greeted with an austere black-and-white photo of the man himself, his name writ large next to it. It was easy to navigate, but it was all sorta boring: muted and monochromatic colors, a few gewgaws such as online polls, and a chance to buy something called "McCain debate-watching kits." A Cause Greater—a subpage that linked to several scholarships, charities and nonprofits—was noble, but didn't seem to offer much adrenaline for a foundering campaign.

Now that McCain is catching a second wind (of sorts), one main attraction, advertised in vivid yellow cartoon script, is a flash-animation video game with Jib Jab--style talking heads called "The John and Hillary Show," in which voters are ushered into a dark auditorium and asked to answer multiple-choice riddles about the two. (One that's not posed: "Which candidate recently told a constituent who had asked, 'How do we beat the bitch?' that it was 'An excellent question'?")

Mike Huckabee

WEB SITE mikehuckabee.com
LOOK FOR "My plan to secure the border? Two words: Chuck. Norris."
LAUGH AT Huck's contention that the Earth is 6,000 years old—because the Bible says so. "I don't separate my faith from my personal and professional lives."
GRADE C

Remember when people poked fun at Bill Clinton for being portly? Apparently, the other Man from Hope, Ark., used to look like he enjoyed Big Macs too. Then he lost 110 pounds—so fast, wrote The New York Times, "that it was as if he simply unzipped a fat suit and stepped out." He even wrote a book about it: Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork. Huckabee's Web site is pretty slim, too. And he may be burying his presidential campaign by not embracing more multimedia and social-networking tools. Yes, there are tiny links to his Flickr and Facebook pages. But no, a few links to un-embedded YouTube clips, a drab blog and a ton o' text isn't gonna cut it in these tech-savvy times. Then again, I suppose we shouldn't be too surprised that he isn't much into Web development; this is, after all, a guy who supports teaching creationism in schools.

Tom Tancredo

WEB SITE teamtancredo.com
LOOK FOR The bloody TV spot recreating a terrorist attack, perpetrated by "jihadists who froth with hate" who presumably slipped in via Mexico
LAUGH AT Tancredo, inviting you to a Nashua house party, posing with pretty red balloons
GRADE C-

I was ready to give this Paleolithic no-hoper credit for at least having a modern, tech-savvy site: It's well-stocked with YouTube clips, Facebook links, scrolling blog-post thingamabobs and assorted Web 2.0 whatnottery. Then I noticed a letter from a constituent, given pride of place on Tancredo's homepage in the form of a PDF file. It seems this woman was at Wal-Mart one day, "looking for toddler crew socks." She asked several employees where she could find some, but each one said, "No English." So the woman approached an African-American employee stocking shelves and repeated her question. "As we were walking," she writes, "I told her I had asked several of the women in the front of the store, but they spoke no English and were no help to me at all. She stopped in her tracks and said, 'I always knew something would bring us together'—who would have guessed it would be language?" How touching—healing the racial divide by shared disdain for Mexicans.

Duncan Hunter

WEB SITE gohunter08.com
LOOK FOR Endorsement letter from the ever-relevant Chuck Yeager
LAUGH AT Poll questions, such as, "Would you join with Rep. Hunter and pledge to make your holidays [sic] purchases 'Made in America'?"
GRADE B

This Web site doesn't just toss up a few shaky clips of Hunter talking up corn farmers in Sioux City or lunching with old ladies in Nashua. No, indeed. The online videos for Hunter are staged presentations with snazzy graphics and high production values: the candidate standing in front of a white background, expounding on the "War on Terror" or border security or fair trade as he gestures toward flashy computer simulations of missiles in space or the wall he wants to build between the United States and Mexico.

Clearly, these professionally executed films mean the (not far from Hollywood) California congressman has his proverbial shit together and is well-suited to be commander in chief. Right? Actually, other evidence—his bill prohibiting federal money to Columbia University for its hosting of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; his desire to ban CNN from Iraq; his contention that China plans to invade Panama; his hairpiece—suggests that he's just sort of insane.

Ron Paul

WEB SITE ronpaul2008.com
LOOK FOR You could look for the 1992 edition of the Ron Paul Political Report, which offers some disquieting opinions about African Americans and the L.A. riots—but you won't find it.
LAUGH AT His attempt at a Lands' End catalogue, "Fall & Winter Clothing," in his online store
GRADE B+

In October, Paul's oft-ignored insurgent campaign announced it had raised a relatively remarkable $5.1 million in the third quarter—five times what fellow candidate Mike Huckabee had pulled in during the same period. Where did it come from? The Internet, of course. From the thousands of young Web surfers who embrace his libertarian message of small government and an end to the war. (If that $5 million was impressive, it's astonishing that Paul's supporters, via a site called thisnovember5th.com, were able to raise more than $4 million in a single day last month.)

Does this mean he has a shot at winning this thing? Pretty doubtful. But it is another tangible example of the massive discrepancy between Paul's Internet celebrity and his mainstream-media presence. Paul's site is a beaut: eye-catching, well-designed and utilitarian. And its use of social networking has helped make him a Web celeb. He's consistently among the top search terms on Technorati. He's dug by the Digg folks. There's even a "Ron Paul girl" running around metacafe.com doing strip teases in his support. Paul's supporters are proliferating. This could get interesting.

Alan Keyes

WEB SITE alankeyes.com
LOOK FOR A gigantic library of audio clips dating back to 1989, including his 1999 address to the Third Annual Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays Conference
LAUGH AT A page expounding on "his profound skill, eloquence, and knowledge," and explaining how Barack Obama quakes in fear at his debating chops
GRADE D

"We will not survive if we don't address the serious moral crisis that clearly besets this country." Thus spake Keyes—or, at least a still, two-dimensional photo of him—in a slow-loading video on his Web site. And to this end, Keyes, the self-proclaimed "Renowned Debater" and "Grassroots Voice," has put out the call for all right-thinking Americans to sign his Pledge for America's Revival. The pledge itself, at more than 1,300 words, is some heavy reading. And if it's not enough to convince you of his gravitas, there's ample video, audio and speech transcripts on the site to attest to the rightness of his right-thinking crusade. There are also downloadable fliers, banners and graphics with which pledge-takers can proselytize the cause. But, so far, response has been tepid. According to the red-thermometer symbol on his homepage, at press time only 2,523 had taken the pledge, out of Keyes's stated goal to reach 5,000. (He does realize he needs more than 5,000 votes to win, right?)

THE DEMOCRATS

Hillary Clinton

WEB SITE hillaryclinton.com
LOOK FOR The Fact Hub: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but (according to the Clinton campaign, of course)
LAUGH AT "Caucusing is Easy," a video clip that demonstrates just that (while also mocking Hill's tone-deafness and Bill's love for cheeseburgers)
GRADE B

There are several Facebook groups devoted to our former first lady and potential future president. One of them is called One Million Strong for Hillary Clinton. Another is called One Million Against Hillary Clinton. Clearly, the conventional wisdom that she's a divisive candidate is not without merit. But she also clearly wants to be liked. That's why her site is full of colorful logos imploring mouse clickers to Join Team Hillary, Be a Hillraiser, Build Our Base and Join/Start a Group. The site has exhaustive policy information, an ever-updated blog and a copious video archive of TV spots and "HillCasts."

And over at hillaryhub.com, her campaign has effected something of its own Drudge Report, a Spartan clearinghouse for Hill-friendly headlines and breaking news. One questions the need for such a thing, however, when one considers, as New York magazine recently pointed out, that Matt Drudge is "an icon of the right who seems obsessed with making Hillary Clinton our next president."

Barack Obama

WEB SITE barackobama.com
LOOK FOR A breakdown of what the Obama candidacy means for different people: Asian Americans, African Americans, First Americans, LGBT Americans, People of Faith, Environmentalists, Veterans, etc.
LAUGH AT The logo for "Generation Obama," which looks a lot like GQ's logo
GRADE B+

Obama has a good-looking site: spaciously designed, but with room for a ton of information. There's a blog, of course. And BarackTV. It also offers mobile capabilities: If you text "Go" to OBAMA (62262), you can receive campaign announcements on your cell phone. (Bonus: You can interrupt conversations with boring friends to take high-level phone calls from "the Obama campaign.")

In addition to MySpace and Facebook, Obama has posted links on his page to blackplanet.com. Still, some of the most notable Internet moments of Obama's campaign so far have taken place off-site, over at YouTube, created by his supporters. Back in the spring, there was the ad parodying Apple's famous 1984-style Super Bowl commercial, in which voters are implored to "Vote Different" as an athlete in an Obama T-shirt hurls a hammer into a screen bearing Hillary's looming, demagogic image. And, of course, there's "I Got a Crush . . . on Obama," in which buxom Amber Lee Ettinger lip-syncs a sexy slow jam while lusting after the jug-eared string bean.

"It's just one more example of the fertile imagination of the Internet," the candidate told reporters when asked about the video. "More stuff like this will be popping up all the time." And even if he carped that it was ruining his rep ("You do wish people would think about what impact their actions have on kids and families," he told the Associated Press), you can't buy publicity like that. It's a safe bet Barack hearts Obama Girl, too.

John Edwards

WEB SITE johnedwards.com
LOOK FOR An informative blog, subdivided and cross-referenced into Arguments & Analyses, Action, Quick Posts and Diaries
LAUGH AT "Our favorite Thanksgiving recipes"—only available after you fork over a campaign donation
GRADE A-

"Democrat John Edwards was the first [candidate] to set up shop in virtual world Second Life." If that piece of information, reported this spring on CNN.com, isn't enough to get Edwards your vote, it's surely enough to cement his cyberspace bona fides. His site hits all the right buttons: It's nicely designed, with eye-popping color, snazzy graphics and well-ordered navigation. And it has comprehensive tools (video blogs, podcasts, real-time chats, social networking) to make it easy to learn about Edwards and spread the word about him.

The candidate's embrace of technology is unabashed—and he's a proselytizer. His site's Technical Corner page offers a glossary and instructions explaining how less-Net-savvy citizens can use a wide array of gadgets and software apps, such as audio blogs, RSS, Skype, pings and trackbacks, to learn and, in turn, get the message out. As for the geeks, Edwards openly solicits ideas from supporters about ways to "better utilize technology to reach more people." Compare this stance with the current president's, whose Internet experience is limited to checking Yahoo! for Texas Rangers scores.

Bill Richardson

WEB SITE richardsonforpresident.com
LOOK FOR "Una Nueva Alianza con América Latina"
LAUGH AT An action center that will help you "find friends." Man, this guy really cares about his constituents!
GRADE C+

On the left-hand side of Bill Richardson's homepage are four navigation bars. There's a red one. Click it to contribute to his campaign. Below that is a yellowy/orange bar. Click it if you want to read about his plan for jobs and the American economy. Under that is a green bar. That leads to a petition to de-authorize the war and bring the troops home. And beneath that is a blue bar, leading to information about Richardson's "new energy revolution" proposals.

It seems, at first, a haphazard grouping of disparate policy prescriptions. But then, surrounded by a busy sea of shifting widgets and video clips, links to blog posts and campaign swag, the nav bars' colors come into focus. Suddenly, it hits you: It looks pretty much like the color-coded terrorism threat-advisory scale. Which can mean only one thing. Knowing he's the longest of long shots for president, Richardson is subliminally angling for secretary of homeland security. You heard it here first.

Joe Biden

WEB SITE joebiden.com
LOOK FOR Substantive policy proposals about Iraq and Pakistan
LAUGH AT Joe's vaguely Max Headroom-esque official photo (difference: Max wears a tie)
GRADE B-

Once you get past a welcome "splash page" that looks almost exactly like Richardson's (Didn't Joe learn anything from the 1988 Neil Kinnock controversy?), Joe Biden's site offers some interesting insights. The first thing one notices is that it's more text-based than most sites, with much of the homepage given over to various news stories, op-eds and press releases. There's a big graphic celebrating Biden's being the first Democrat to receive a newspaper endorsement. (That publication, in case you're wondering, is the powerhouse Storm Lake Times, the "hometown newspaper" of Buena Vista County, Iowa.) Most interesting to us was a hype titled: "Biden vs. Giuliani: focusing on the Main Event." Does ol' Joe know something about the upcoming general election that we don't?

Chris Dodd

WEB SITE chrisdodd.com
LOOK FOR The way Dodd uses the anniversary of the trials at Nuremberg (his father, U.S. Sen. Thomas Dodd, was a lead prosecutor there) for a meditation on America's fallen standing in the world
LAUGH AT The name his campaign has given to his team of supporters: the Dodd Squad
GRADE C+

Dodd has enormous, imposing black eyebrows and an impeccably coiffed head of snow-white hair. (I know this because I've seen both up-close after finding myself sitting next to him downtown at Kitty O'Shea's during the '04 Democratic Convention.) Dodd's Web site, alas, is nowhere near as handsome as he, from the grainy image of the candidate, looking as if it was photographed off a TV, to the ugly, spindly fonts and the rather simplistic, as opposed to just simple, design sense.

Of course, it's the substance of a politician's message that really matters, and Dodd does offer substantial multimedia opportunities to learn about his policy proposals. But image counts for a lot in politics—too much, in fact, and this site is sorely lacking. Dodd scores points for utilizing the Latino social-networking site MyGrito, however, and also for his regularly updated Twitter page, which allows you to obsess over his whereabouts and goings-on at any hour of the day.

Dennis Kucinich

WEB SITE dennis4president.com
LOOK FOR A clip from MSNBC in which Tucker Carlson asks why—apart from his short stature and the UFO thing—Kucinich is not the Democratic front-runner: "He's more of a Democrat than Hillary Clinton!"
LAUGH AT The marketing wizards who dreamed up the "$50 for a signed pocket constitution by Dennis for the first 1000 people who act now!"
GRADE B

Not long ago, if you googled the Kooch's name, his Wikipedia entry showed up before his official Web site did. Our best guess is that's because so many incredulous members of the electorate were scrambling to the Web looking for information on how he snagged such an improbably hot wife. Now that the initial shock has worn off that this tiny, leprechaun-looking man is married to a statuesque, flame-haired siren, dennis4president.com (Hey, who knew he was a Prince fan?) has been restored to Google-search supremacy.

It's a fine Web site. More interesting, however, are some of the sites it links to. Every week, Kucinich staffers upload a produced, evening-news-style program to YouTube in which a fake anchor (actress Anne Marie Howard) runs down the campaign's week in review. Another link takes one to a commondreams.org article describing his courtship of his young and pulchritudinous bride, Elizabeth. Still more YouTube videos follow Elizabeth, who's English, on whistle-stop tours all over the US of A. Kucinich will never win the presidency. But he and his wife could have a center-square residence on a certain Hollywood game show in their future.

Mike Gravel

WEB SITE gravel2008.us
LOOK FOR A slim policy sheet, outlining his stances on everything from the Green Tax to Net Neutrality
LAUGH AT One of Gravel's MySpace friends: "I missed out on the 11/11 fundraising effort, so I chipped in 25 bux instead. . . . Maybe that can buy a burrito or something ;)"
GRADE C

Gravel will not be our next president, either. Something tells us he knows this. Which is why he can afford to go all out with a super kooky site and some awesomely bad graphics. There's a blog, of course, presented in clunky Arial Black font.

He hits some of the right notes: The requisite social-networking tags are all there, as are links to his YouTube page.

Weirdly, most of the information about him is provided off-site. You can find helpful instructions on how to visit the former Alaska senator in Second Life. One can see why he hangs out there: Only in an online fantasy world could a good-hearted, intensely liberal 77-year-old who hasn't held elected office since 1981 expect to win the presidency.

This originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix on Nov. 28; some Web sites may have changed since then. Reprinted with permission.

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