Web War Waged For The White House

There is a new front line in the presidential campaign battle this year: your computer screen. A recent survey shows almost half of us use the Internet, e-mail, and text messages to get political news. That means what the candidates say on their Web site - and how they say it - is crucial, CBS News science and technology correspondent Daniel Sieberg reports.

Sure, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama still make speeches, kiss babies, and do grip-and-grins - but much of the real campaign has gone online.

"It's about understanding how to use the Web to get your message out there and get your supporters to distribute it for you," said Andrew Rasiej, online entrepreneur and founder of the Personal Democracy Forum.

In this case, the medium really is the message. It's where more than positions differentiate the candidates - it's in how they're using their Web sites. CBS News went to Web design expert Doug Jaeger for his professional review, which started with a complaint.

"This is the home page, this is where we're greeting people," he said, showing McCain and Obama's Web sites. "Do you think these guys could make eye contact with us? No."

Jaeger describes Obama's site as "clean" and McCain's as "cluttered."

"He's using lots of different type faces at all different sizes, which gives you a feeling of chaos," he said.

Both Web sites target specific audiences. McCain goes after six, including veterans, lawyers and sportsmen. Obama has 18, ranging from Asian-Americans to women. Kids have their own special area, including a logo to color.

McCain offers a game called Pork Invaders on his Facebook page. Kill enough pigs, and you're rewarded ... with a statement about pork-barrel politics.

"Obama's then goes on to do what McCain's doesn't, which is to provide his supporters this whole infrastructure to organize themselves to do things that are going to help get Obama elected, and McCain's just doesn't do that," noted Politico's Ben Smith.

The Obama campaign may hope the Internet will do for Obama what television did for John F. Kennedy in 1960. Just compare the candidate's popularity on the social networking sites Facebook and MySpace. Obama has 1,281,471 Facebook "friends" and 443,004 on MySpace. McCain has 192,957 on Facebook and 62,203 on MySpace.

Enter a zip code on Obama's site and you can find, or put together, events, like one fundraising bake sale organized by Arlene Geiger.

"It allows everybody who wants to do something to put their thing out there and see if people get excited about it," Geiger said.

McCain has just recently added a similar feature. He's been using a different approach to get supporters to "spread the word." The campaign supplies the talking points - you post them on a blog and get reward points for doing so - redeemable for prizes like riding the Straight-Talk Express.

But McCain's Web site is still playing catch up to Obama's use of cyberspace, and there are fewer than 12 weeks until Election Day.

"Building communities online takes time and building strong robust Web sites also takes time. So it's kind of like getting a 747 to take off from a small regional airport. There ain't enough runway," Rasiej said.

And there's no guarantee that online enthusiasm will translate into votes for either candidate.

"I don't think you can get elected president of the United States without using the Internet, but you're certainly not going to get elected president of the United States with it alone," Rasiej said.

Making the Internet has triumphed as a new voice for the people - and maybe a transformative tool for the candidates.


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