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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 May 2007, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
Have the Democrats won the web war?
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News, Washington

Barack Obama speaks at a rally
Barack Obama has a strong presence on social networking sites
Whether announcing their candidacy online or rueing the release of revealing video clips, no contender for the White House in 2008 can ignore the power of the internet.

Barely a week goes by without a political story breaking on a blog or social networking site like YouTube and MySpace.

But according to conservative bloggers who met at the Washington Times last week, the battle is already as good as won - and not by them.

They believe their rivals on the left of the political spectrum - and the Democrats they are backing - have the edge in organisation, message and clout.

And that, they say, that could cost the Republicans dear in 2008.

So has the left really won the battle of the web? And if so, what influence - if any - will that have on the outcome of the presidential race?

Rallying cause

Jon Henke, new media director for the Republican Communications Office in the Senate and a contributor to the blog QandO, says the Republicans are "late getting into the game".

This means they are failing to build up online communities and have missed out on the chance to gather vital voter data such as e-mail addresses to use for targeted campaigning, he says.

Rush Limbaugh
Talk radio hosts have tended to spread the Republican message

Certainly no Republican candidate can currently match the popularity of Democratic Senator Barack Obama on social networking sites MySpace, Facebook and YouTube.

And figures for the 2008 candidates' fundraising efforts for the first quarter of 2007 demonstrate that the Democrats have the edge in raising money online too.

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards collectively raised more than $14m in online contributions, while the top Republican contenders, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, gathered about $6m between them.

Observers explain the gap by arguing that bloggers on the left are united in one aim - getting a Democrat into the White House in 2008 - whereas the right is more fragmented. The left has also rallied to the cause of ending the war in Iraq.

In addition, blogging emerged at a time when the Republicans controlled both Congress and the White House - and was embraced by the left as the ideal platform for grassroots, bottom-up activism.

On the other hand conservatives, who have traditionally dominated talk radio with high-profile presenters like Rush Limbaugh, have tended to use their blogs for commentary and to pass on the top-down party message, observers say.

Now, with many liberal bloggers collaborating to push the Democratic agenda - so giving the news they promote greater prominence and attracting more mainstream media attention - the more fragmented right risks losing influence.

"Blogs are not directly responsible [for deciding elections]," says Mr Henke. "But what they do is shape the media coverage."

Camera, action

Where both parties are expecting to take the fight in the run-up to November 2008 is the battleground of online video.

Jim Webb wins the Senate race in Virginia, November 2006
Video played a role in securing a win for Jim Webb in Virginia

Campaign strategists are already arming volunteers with cameras to film opposition events in the hope of capturing damaging slip-ups. In the battle for credibility, one video can say more than a thousand words, analysts point out.

A prime example is the damage caused to George Allen's 2006 Senate campaign after he was caught on video calling a Democratic activist of Indian descent a "macaca" - a genus of monkey. Liberal bloggers picked up on his apparent racism and Democrat Jim Webb won the Virginia seat.

More recently, a two-minute clip of Democratic contender John Edwards painstakingly combing his hair, backed by the West Side Story tune "I Feel Pretty", proved a hit on YouTube and fuelled conservative criticism of his $400 haircuts.

Mary Katherine Ham, a columnist for the prominent conservative blog Townhall.com, says her site is one of many hoping to catch a "macaca moment" on film.

Unlike television coverage, she adds, once a video goes on a site like YouTube it will appear every time a user searches for that candidate's name - and can never be got rid of.

A conservative video networking site, QubeTV, was launched in March to encourage Republican supporters to send in their clips.

Time to talk

Jeff Jarvis, a media professor who blogs at Prezvid.com, a site monitoring candidates' use of video on the web, argues that it will take more than an embarrassing YouTube moment to win or lose the election - especially with almost 18 months to go.

At the same time, he believes no candidate has yet truly grasped how to use web video as an asset, rather than a tool for attack.

There's so much they can do - we are just waiting for them to come talk to us
Jeff Jarvis

Campaign videos, such as Hillary Clinton's online announcement of her candidacy, are formal, polished broadcasts where they should be conversational in tone, he says.

Campaign strategists are also too cautious, he adds. After all, if a tiring candidate makes a mistake, what better way to disarm would-be attackers than by getting the footage up on their own site first, with an apology?

He plays down reports of Democratic dominance online, pointing out that the blogosphere is so huge it is hard to pick out winners and losers.

"The Democrats are doing better, but slightly - the truth is, they are all behind," he told the BBC News website.

"What I am seeing is the poorer the candidate, the smarter their use of the internet. Others are relying on big money, thinking it's still going to be fought on television."

He would like to see all the contenders - Democrat and Republican - treat the internet as another way to get "face-to-face" with potential voters, by going online to answer questions and posting responses on blogs that criticise them.

"There's so much they can do - we are just waiting for them to come talk to us."

While the Democrats are leading the way towards that conversation, the Republicans may yet be able to steer it their way.

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