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Florida candidates take campaigns to Facebook and Twitter

TALLAHASSEE — U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio is about to go on MSNBC's Morning Joe. Attorney General Bill McCollum, running for governor, updates supporters that he is honored to get the endorsement of Gov. Charlie Crist. And Sen. Dan Gelber, hoping to be Florida's next attorney general, wants you to know he's thankful for America's veterans.

So goes politicking and campaigning in the era of Facebook and Twitter cyber-mediums that allow users to interact constantly and quickly through updates, Web links, videos and photos that can be viewed via computers, BlackBerrys, and iPhones.

Taking a cue from President Barack Obama's successful campaign, and from their children and grandchildren, elected officials and candidates are increasingly harnessing the popular social networking tools to drive home campaign platforms and reach voters.

Rubio, the conservative former House speaker running against Crist in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, began using Facebook and Twitter in the summer of 2008 — mostly for personal use. But what began as a place for him to keep in touch with friends and post family pictures is now a political platform where he communicates with more than 16,000 "friends," supporters and Twitter "followers."

"You're not going to win your campaign on Twitter or Facebook," Rubio, 38, said. "But it's part of an overall strategy."

When a recent YouTube video emerged portraying Crist and his inner circle as the Hitler regime, Rubio quickly pecked out a message via Twitter to condemn it and distance himself from it.

"I didn't have to go through the process of putting out a press release," Rubio said. "I was able to respond to it from the road in a very fast way. … You can communicate with large numbers of people very fast, and for free. That's the ideal political communication."

Lately, it seems like most elected officials in the Sunshine State have a Twitter or Facebook account — or both. The list is long and keeps growing: Sens. Gelber and Dave Aronberg, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and Senate President Jeff Atwater, to name a few.

But Rubio has been one of the most effective and prolific users of the mediums. That, coupled with adoring attention from conservative national media, may be helping him rise in recent polls against Crist.

Rubio takes digs at Crist or other moderates and Democrats via his Facebook "status update" box, and friends regularly post messages, political cartoons, YouTube videos and news articles that lean in his favor or drive home his conservative message.

It also serves as an electronic venue for gathering donations — a lesson straight out of the Obama playbook.

"The real potential of Facebook and Twitter is as an organizing, fundraising tool," said Steve Schale, Florida director for the Obama campaign. "When I started on the Obama campaign, I don't think I fully comprehended the myriad ways you can integrate new media into the campaign."

Schale said Obama and other politicians also find the sites are effective for creating "a sense of intimacy" and a "conversation" with voters.

A Rubio or Crist "friend" reads their status updates and feels the candidates are speaking directly to them.

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, likened social networking tools like Facebook to a "modern-day, easily updated version of a political pamphlet."

"Politicians clearly understand there are a lot of efficiencies and economies from using technology such as Facebook; it's a heck of a lot cheaper than advertising on television," said Ben Agger, a professor of sociology and humanities at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Sen. Mike Haridopolos has been a Twitter user since the summer. He didn't start using Facebook until a few weeks ago, after asking students in his political science classes at the University of Florida whether they use the site.

"Every single hand went up," said Haridopolos, 39, who updates his Twitter and Facebook pages from his iPhone. "That changed the paradigm for me. I want to go to where voters are."

He said he gets "decent traffic" on his Web site, www.senatormike.com, "but the ease with which you can turn things out on Facebook and Twitter, it is just better.

"When you're in the Capitol so much, you can get into that bubble," he said. "Facebook reminds you what people are thinking and saying outside of here."

Not everyone in politics has embraced Facebook and Twitter. Agger said an estimated 50 percent of Facebook users are younger, born after 1960. But the demographics are changing, and as the parents and grandparents of 20- and 30-somethings start using the social networking tools, so will more politicians.

"This is a trend that will only reverse if these social networking sites fade from the scene," Agger said. "And that doesn't seem likely."

Alex Sink, who turned 61 this summer, has a campaign page for her Democratic gubernatorial bid on Facebook. By Thursday, she had racked up nearly 8,000 supporters. McCollum, 65, has a personal page with more than 3,800 friends and a campaign page with nearly 2,500 supporters.

Both also have office accounts on Twitter.

Shannon Gravitte, McCollum's campaign consultant, said he often ends speeches with the quip, "We tweet!"

Gov. Crist has Facebook and Twitter pages, but his campaign staff updates them.

"It's an innovative opportunity to get further reach for a campaign," Crist, 53, said. "And as a communication tool, it's relatively inexpensive."

But not without risk.

His party leadership is in hot water over a party operative's use of Twitter to allegedly smear an outspoken Brevard County chairman who has been critical of state party leader Jim Greer.

"Twitter gives you so many more opportunities in politics to say something stupid," said Thompson, the Syracuse professor.

"The pitfalls are, you could use Twitter or Facebook in an undisciplined way, say something in jest, and it becomes a huge issue," Rubio said, speaking generally. "Clearly, Twitter has the potential to provide that moment in politics."

Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at scolavecchio@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Twitter/Facebook followers

As politicians approach the 2010 elections, they are increasingly harnessing the power of Facebook and Twitter to get their message out and generate excitement among supporters. Some are just learning the art of Facebook "friends" and Twitter "followers." Others are showing as much prowess as the millennial generation that has made the sites so popular:

U.S. Senate candidates**

Former House Speaker Marco Rubio: 12,096 Facebook friends and supporters through his personal and campaign pages. 6,416 Twitter followers.

Gov. Charlie Crist: 7,538 Facebook supporters on campaign page. 4,046 Twitter followers .

U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek: 11,925 Facebook supporters . 3,097 Twitter followers

Florida governor candidates**

Attorney General Bill McCollum: 6,370 Facebook friends and supporters. 3,396 Twitter followers.

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink: 7,978 Facebook supporters. 2,912 Twitter followers.

Sen. Paula Dockery: 5,619 Facebook friends and supporters. 245 Twitter followers.

**All totals are as of Friday afternoon

Florida candidates take campaigns to Facebook and Twitter 11/15/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 16, 2009 7:17am]
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