Presidential Candidates Plug Into Internet

By Thomas Ferraro
Published March 16, 1999. Copyright, San Jose Mercury News.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Though Vice President Al Gore claimed credit for helping invent the Internet, he will be among the last White House candidates to plug into it.

Most of the dozen presidential aspirants already have their own Web sites, but Gore's campaign office said Tuesday it will not be online until at least next week.

Earlier Tuesday, publisher Steve Forbes, a Republican, became the first person to ever announce his candidacy on his own Web site.

"This is going to be a new information-age campaign," Forbes vowed in an audio address on his site,

The Web site may eventually become as essential to any successful road to the White House as a campaign bus or town hall meeting.

Perhaps it will be even more important, if and when the number of people with access to the Internet tops 50 percent of American voters.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that about 40 percent of American adults go online, nearly triple that from four years ago.

"At this point, any candidate in a competitive race would be crazy not to have a Web site,'' said Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation, a private group dedicated to using technology to promote democracy.

The Internet, the global network of computer networks, lets candidates interact with online users, giving them information about their campaigns while also soliciting contributions.

Alexander conceded that far fewer people are online than watch television or listen to the radio, but said Internet subscribers are more apt to be politically active.

"The Internet is helping people become more savvy consumers, whether it is buying a car or picking a candidate," she said.

Alexander said political candidates first began using Web sites in 1994, and that in 1996 six of the nine Republican presidential candidates had Web sites.

In the 1996 election, President Clinton used the Internet to help him and his Democratic running mate Gore amass contributions and win second terms.

Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler turned Reform Party candidate, used a Web site in his upset win in last year's gubernatorial election in Minnesota.

"I wouldn't say he was elected because of his Web site, but he probably couldn't have won without it," said Alexander, noting that Ventura used it to energize 3,000 "highly motivated subscribers."

Forbes' claim to be the first to ever announce a presidential candidacy on the Internet drew a cry of protest Tuesday from members of the presidential campaign of former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander.

Alexander's press secretary, Steve Schmidt, contended his boss was the one who made history in 1995 by using the Internet to announce his first White House bid.

Presidential candidate Alexander, though, announced on America Online, a proprietary online service open only to its subscribers and at the time not accessible from the wider Internet.

Gore drew headlines and criticism last week when he said in an interview with CNN that while a member of Congress, "I took the initiative in creating the Internet."

Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican, said in a statement: "The vice president is mistaken. The only thing he has ever invented is another tax."

The Internet has its origins in U.S. defense research in the 1960s, although it has only become widely available in the past few years.

Though Gore may not have invented the Internet, his interest in high technology has earned him the nickname "techie-in-chief."

Roger Salazar, deputy press secretary of Gore's presidential campaign, said Tuesday that the vice president needs some more time to perfect his Web site.

"We are still checking some things out, but should be ready to go sometime next week," Salazar said.

Ethan Siegal of the Washington Exchange, which tracks policy and politics for investors, isn't bullish on political Web sites.

"I think they will have as much impact on the political process next year as and other retail selling sites have on the GDP, which I think is minimal," Siegal said.

"This is a touchy feely economy and we have touchy feeling politics," he said. "Winning in New Hampshire and Iowa is about retail politics, shaking someone's hand."

At the California Voter Foundation, Alexander, advised of Siegal's comments, scoffed, "Some people just don't get it."

©1999 Mercury Center.

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