President Bush and Democratic front-runner Sen. John Kerry are engaged in a high-tech political showdown that combines the targeting power of direct mail with the glossy appearance of a television commercial.
The format is a Web video message e-mailed to millions of the Democratic and Republican rank-and-file.
"It's animated direct mail," said Michael Cornfield, research director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University. "It's meant to mobilize supporters, raise money and create buzz."
Thanks to advances in technology, campaigns are making widespread use of Web videos that are quicker to produce and cheaper to distribute than direct-mail literature sent to voters' homes or television commercials.
And unlike those TV ads, the videos that appear on the Internet face none of the content regulations of the 2002 campaign-finance law, including the statement by the candidate of "I approved this ad" that has given some campaigns pause before releasing negative political ads. Web videos have the potential to be nastier than the typical TV ad.
Sent out as links in e-mails, Web videos can easily be forwarded by the original recipients to scores of people, unlike direct mail that may end up in the trash.
Nick Nyhan, president of Dynamic Logic, an Internet consultancy, called such Web videos the future of political campaigns. "It's a new rapid-response medium for them," he said.
Flush with about $100 million in the bank at the end of last year, the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign sat on the sidelines for months as the Democrats spent millions on ads in dozens of markets as part of the primary race. The incumbent Republican wanted to wait until the presumptive nominee emerged from the series of caucuses and primaries before unleashing his own television-ad campaign.
Rather than run TV ads when it became clear that Mr. Kerry was poised to capture the Democratic presidential nomination, the Bush-Cheney campaign opted to e-mail a made-for-the-Internet video to 6 million supporters last week that sought to portray the Massachusetts senator as beholden to special interests even as he campaigns against them. Mr. Kerry has run at least a dozen TV ads assailing Mr. Bush or his policies.
Matthew Dowd, the Bush-Cheney campaign's chief strategist in charge of polling and media, said the campaign chose the Web video because it wanted to deliver its message quickly to core supporters who were paying attention to the presidential race and the likelihood that Mr. Kerry would win the nomination.
"The delivery of information will expand. When we begin to talk to the general public, we'll go through the broadcast media," Mr. Dowd said.
Mr. Kerry's campaign responded Saturday, sending its own Web video to 300,000 supporters. The video described Mr. Bush as "the politician who's taken more special-interest money than anyone in history."
The Kerry campaign also ridiculed Mr. Bush for not being in his own video, while the senator was shown approving the message in his.
Mr. Dowd said when the campaign airs TV ads, they will include Mr. Bush intoning, "I approved this message" in accordance with the law.
Jonah Seiger, a Washington-based Internet consultant, said that with the combination of the e-mail list and Web videos, the campaigns have essentially created broadcast networks.
"It goes out to a huge group of people, who in turn send it to their friends," he said. "It has a network effect."