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Campaigns connect online and in person

Regional field coordinator Tony DeSisto, left, and volunteer Mark Hettig joke around last week at the Pinellas County Republican headquarters. Mark, a Countryside High student, helps online.

LARA CERRI | Times

Regional field coordinator Tony DeSisto, left, and volunteer Mark Hettig joke around last week at the Pinellas County Republican headquarters. Mark, a Countryside High student, helps online.

Like a lot of 15-year-olds, Countryside High School student Mark Hettig spends time on the Internet sites MySpace and Facebook to connect with friends. Unlike a lot of 15-year-olds, he spent several weeks this summer volunteering for a presidential campaign.

Talk to Mark awhile, and it quickly becomes clear these two activities are somewhat similar. Running a presidential campaign in 2008 is starting to look a lot like Facebooking.

"We've gotten a great response from McCain Nation," he says, referring to a part of the candidate's Web site that allows supporters to create and find nearby campaign events. "I've been pleasantly surprised."

Other supporters are logging onto "McCain Space," a name that sounds inspired by "MySpace," while Barack Obama backers are creating personalized Web pages on Mybarack obama.com, or "MyBO" for short.

There's a good reason presidential campaigns are borrowing heavily from social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. These sites let people create online networks of friends so they can chat and rant among themselves, find new friends and make plans to get together.

Which just happens to be the essence of political organizing: communicating to like-minded people and mobilizing them.

"It's about checking in with your community, and people you've established relationships with," said Adrianne Marsh, Florida spokeswoman for the Obama campaign.

On a MyBO page, people can post pictures of themselves and write their profiles, explaining why they support Obama. They can start a blog. They can create online groups of Obama backers, or join existing ones like the "Tampa Bay O-Train," "Pinellas for Obama" or "Lisa's Precinct Captains." They can name other people as friends and, of course, make online contributions.

One of the founders of Facebook, Chris Hughes, is a campaign official supervising the site, which also helped Obama raise millions of dollars in online campaign contributions.

Although McCain's Web site does not have as many interactive features, supporters can create a "McCain Space" page, recruit five or more friends via e-mail, contribute money or be linked to leading political blogs to share positive views about McCain.

If all this sounds light years removed from the days of coffee klatches and neighborhood walks, it shouldn't. The chatting in cyberspace often concerns street-level topics such as finding volunteers to work phone banks, getting yard signs and bumper stickers to voters and walking precincts door-to-door, just like the old days.

"The old-fashioned is still very much new-fashion, it's still very much what works," said Kristen Psaki, the Obama campaign's new media director for Florida. That's why supporters' MyBO pages contain "activity indexes" that track the numbers of events attended, doors knocked on, calls made and money raised, among other things.

Facebook-style campaigning is not a repudiation of the time-tested, shoe-leather methods of politicking. It's more like "an amplification" of them, Psaki said.

John Dickhaus, 17, a Gibbs High School student, said he met a McCain staff member who urged him to check out McCain Space. He did, and typed in a request to learn more about volunteer opportunities.

That's how he began volunteering at a campaign office a few blocks from his house in St. Petersburg, doing such tasks as phone calls and arranging the office furniture. He's enthusiastic about the Web site.

"It's social networking, it's great," he said.

The Obama supporters known as the Tampa Bay O-Train were sending messages to each other long before the Obama campaign set up its staff locally. They used their online group to notify each other about meetings where they would watch the candidate in televised debates while writing postcards to potential Obama supporters in other states.

They were so well organized that they contacted Pennsylvania Democrats and asked for lists of independent voters in that state. Member Francine Simmons said they called roughly 3,000 people and identified 300 who planned to change their registration in time to vote for Obama.

Newcomers often show up at the meetings, said Simmons, 42, a stay-at-home mom. That's because they have logged onto Obama's Web site, typed in their ZIP code and found the nearest events.

"I can attract people to events, I can invite masses of people to a rally, I can help raise funds and I can help inspire others … that's the beauty of MyBO," she said.

The campaign's drive to energize voters also extends beyond the Internet. Obama has said he will announce his vice presidential pick via cell phone text message. People can sign up now to get the message — which, incidentally, creates a list of Obama supporters the campaign can use later.

Marsh, the Florida Obama spokeswoman, said the campaign already uses its databases to send encouraging text messages to Florida groups as they go out to canvass neighborhoods, for example. Those same messages could conceivably be sent out again to remind people to vote, Marsh said.

"It's certainly a great tool for Election Day," she said.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232.

Campaigns connect online and in person 08/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 7:45am]
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