- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2007

Image consultants who handle a presidential candidate’s announcement speech might once have had this checklist: Suit clean? Check. Tie straight? Check. No spinach in teeth? Check.

Now, as 2008 hopefuls use the Internet to craft their message, they have an incredible sense of control. Instead of risking a potentially campaign-ending gaffe with a live announcement before a crowd in Iowa or New Hampshire, candidates such as Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois are filming messages on their couches.

At any point, the crew behind the camera can say, “Take Two.” Or “Take 12.” Or as many takes as necessary until the message is flawless.

Mrs. Clinton spent three days after announcing her presidential intentions holding “chats” with voters via the Internet.

“I want to have a conversation, and I want to choose as many different ways of having that conversation. And you can’t have a conversation in America today if you don’t utilize the Web and involve as many people as possible,” she said during a live chat last week.

Former Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, held his own live online video “discussion” because “we should be talking about the great things we can do for our nation and our world if we put our minds to it.”

The unusual forum allows candidates to be more relaxed — the former first lady slouches a bit into a comfy couch — and may give voters a sense that the political heavyweights are actually having a conversation with them in their living room. Sort of.

“It was a way to communicate to my supporters and my network in a very simple, cost-effective way,” Mr. Obama said.

Is it pressuring other candidates to do the same? Not quite.

“I might tap dance on my Web announcement,” Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. said when asked if he would consider making his 2008 plans official — again — on a Web video. The Delaware Democrat punctuated his joke with a little fancy footwork.

Other 2008 candidates — from former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to Mr. Edwards, the 2004 vice-presidential nominee — have shaped their image as tough critics of the Iraq war with Web videos.

“It was the wrong policy at the wrong time. It was designed to make a very big mistake even bigger,” Mr. Vilsack said on his “vlog,” protesting President Bush’s plan to send more troops to Iraq.

Some members of the YouTube generation warn only die-hard political junkies will bother tuning in for a candidate’s full message.

“In order to be effective, you have to play by YouTube rules,” said Matthew Barton, 31, a Raleigh-based Web designer. “You can’t just throw your speech up there, especially compared with a guy doing somersaults off a water tower.”

There will be plenty of unscripted moments caught on camera, but candidates are increasingly able to control their introduction to American voters.

Mrs. Clinton sits on a couch and takes questions from her campaign blogger, Crystal Patterson, in her informal “chats.”

She considers each question — from serious topics such as North Korea to her preferred form of exercise (swimming or a “brisk walk”) — and seems to give spontaneous and thoughtful answers.

“I just like to chill out,” Mrs. Clinton said when asked how she unwinds. “Do as little as possible, putter around in my garden. Just kind of normal things that give me some real pleasure.”

Clinton staffers say 25,000 voters tuned in, but comedian Jon Stewart compared her “chats” to online dating videos.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, while using the new media, is definitely old school with a bland background punctuated by American flags as he tells voters why he’s the best choice for president. The Connecticut Democrat closes with: “Thanks for paying attention.”

He does score points with use of music, however, with a “DoddPod” link on his Web site telling voters the tunes in his playlist and allowing them to suggest additions.

Republican Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, even has “Mitt TV,” a series of videos introducing himself as a presidential candidate and outlining his policy positions.

“It’s a great way to get your message out to say exactly what you want to say, compared with the traditional way of hoping reporters at your press conference mention your talking points in their stories,” said political Internet consultant Jerome Armstrong, who ran the Web work for former Gov. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat.

“The question really is how many people does it reach, and does it go viral? Is it interesting enough for someone to put it on YouTube and link to it from their blog?”

Mr. Warner, who opted against a presidential bid, used the Internet to convey his message long before it was the “it” thing, with podcasts and a venture into the virtual reality world.

Mr. Armstrong, running a new anti-war site for Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said if candidates want to attract young voters, they should do more spontaneous MTV-style video instead of canned, preplanned statements in front of a camera.

“There are a lot of choices on the Internet,” he said. “It should grab you and feel authentic.”

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