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GOP surpasses Dems on Twitter

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Republicans finally get it — and have jumped on Internet technology in hopes of dominating it in the same way they used talk radio in the early 1990s to build a following.

"Every time I send out a tweet, I'm throwing another shovel of dirt to help bury the old media," said Rep. John Culberson of Texas, a 52-year-old Republican who became one of the most quoted speakers at the Republican National Committee tech summit Friday.

Of the 219 congressional Republicans, 49 were using Twitter, while 27 of 317 Democrats were using it as of Monday, according to Tweet Congress (www.tweetcongress.org). The site tracks use of Twitter, a social messaging Web site that allows microblog text entries of 140 characters or less, known as tweets.

Mr. Culberson is the most active congressional "tweeter" and the second-most-followed member of Congress, behind only Republican Sen. John McCain.

Their numbers are dwarfed by President Obama's loyal Internet following, but Mr. McCain's nearly 35,000 Twitter followers are a stark contrast to the lack of tech savvy he demonstrated during the campaign against his 47-year-old BlackBerry-addicted presidential rival.

Mr. McCain, who never even collected phone numbers for campaign text messaging but created a Twitter feed three days after Mr. Obama became president, tells his fans he's about to debate earmark reform on the Senate floor and even took a moment to wish the Cardinals good luck in the Super Bowl.

"We did a lot of new-media stuff, but in the context of the Obama campaign, anything we did was automatically drowned out because they were so good at it," a former McCain campaign aide told The Washington Times.

Ironically, the tech tools at hand since Mr. Obama reached the White House are antiquated compared with what campaign aides were used to using, and the president has stopped text-messaging and using his Twitter feed.

That's given congressional Republicans and Mr. Obama's one-time opponent some time to get up to speed, and Tweet Congress calculates that Republicans account for seven of the top 10 most followed Capitol Hill lawmakers.

House Republicans are posting their responses to the Democrats on YouTube, and new Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele said Mr. Obama's domination of the younger generation using technology was a wake-up call.

As several hundred operatives, consultants and activists huddled for the tech summit Friday, Republican officials promised the rush to embrace new technology was "just the beginning."

They were quick to admit they had been stomped by Democrats and Mr. Obama during the past two elections but said they have the tools to play catch-up.

Mr. Culberson said technology is "the next revolution that's going to take back the Congress," suggesting it enables Republicans to "bypass" the traditional liberal media that "for so long was the only way we could communicate with people" and predicting, "They will become obsolete, like buggy whips and horse and carriages."

The RNC tech summit was held at a Washington hotel but also broadcast online via UStream.tv. Ten minutes into the program, the shaky feed had just 61 viewers watching the summit live. It cut out several times but was up to 109 viewers 30 minutes later, only to drop the signal completely for a half-hour.

By midday, more than 300 viewers were online — many also "tweeting" their impressions of the summit — listening as one presenter talked about the founding of MoveOn.org in the 1990s via a petition against the impeachment of then-President Clinton.

Republicans said technology can help the party bring in more people to build its small minority into a larger force.

"I'd like 100 million people to get the talking points," said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Conference.

He noted that he recently held his first online news conference and bragged that he has the "ninth most friends on Facebook" among members of Congress, "And I'd like more friends."

Mr. Obama remains one of the most popular people on the Internet — enjoying more Facebook friends (5.4 million), Twitter followers (281,651) and YouTube views (more than 3 million have watched WhiteHouse.gov videos) — than any other politician.

However, as Republicans make up for lost time, technology problems have tripped up the White House. The e-mail system has gone down, and Mr. Obama broke a campaign promise to post bills online five days before signing them in part because of lackluster tech tools.

Though the White House is lagging, the Obama political arm remains in top tech form.

The new Organizing for America project, housed at the Democratic National Committee, sent the president's 13-million-strong e-mail list a YouTube clip of his recent economic remarks before a prime-time news conference, urging them to "Make sure that your voice is heard in this process."

The group is using Americans' personal stories of job loss during the recession to build public support for the $787 billion economic stimulus plan.

As the White House has worked to get up to speed, congressional Republicans are deploying war-room campaign-style tactics, quickly clipping YouTube hits that advance their message or responding to the president's comments in real time.

When Mr. Obama said last week at his Fort Myers, Fla., town hall that the stimulus was imperfect because "it was produced in Washington," House Republicans clipped the comment and responded before the town hall had ended.

"A primary goal is making sure everything we do somehow translates into a link on the Internet," said Joe Pounder, strategic communications director for House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.

Mr. Pounder, 25, sent out that clip from the Florida town hall in the same way he used YouTube for direct political combat as part of Team McCain.

"You can't just highlight what someone says with a transcript, you have to show them saying it," he said. "On the chance it goes viral on the Internet, as opposed to 100 reporters seeing it, you could possibly spark enough interest for a million people to see it."

The idea is to have a mind-set that everything Republicans do, even the most traditional events such as news conferences, has a new-media component "to help you echo your own message," said Mr. Pounder, who sends reporters a joke-laden and hyperlink-heavy "Morning Whip-Up" similar to what he blasted out for the McCain campaign in 2008.

Matt Lira, director of new media for Mr. Cantor, had some fun posting a video using Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle" to champion the number zero — as in the number of Republicans who supported the "Democrats' wasteful spending bill."

That video was embedded on Mr. Cantor's blog (http://republicanwhip.house.gov), which is one of the few member sites that allows for open comments and is not moderated beyond a profanity filter.

Mr. Lira, who last year was a staffer tasked with Mr. McCain's e-campaign, said the Republicans have been especially successful soliciting ideas for economic stimulus via video.

Mr. McCain, 72 and mocked by Team Obama during the campaign for not using the computer or surfing the Web, did not embrace technology as his rival was capturing new voters.

"The ultimate lesson of the Obama campaign is you can never underestimate the value of having complete buy-in from the top. That makes all the difference," Mr. Lira said.

Asked whether congressional Republicans would use text messaging, Mr. Lira hinted, "Stay tuned — we have some programs in development."

Sen. James M. Inhofe has been uploading his congressional travels — including a recent visit to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — to his new YouTube page (www.youtube.com/jiminhofepressoffice).

In his direct-to-the-camera clip, the Oklahoma Republican notes he is coming to supporters from "a very unlikely place" and details why he thinks the prison should remain open.

Such videos are attracting scant attention, however; the Inhofe video had about 700 views Monday.

Democratic strategist James Carville predicted right before Mr. Obama won that it would be "not just a lost election" for the Republicans, but "the lost generation."

Several sources said the vice-presidential announcements — the Obama campaign using Twitter and text messaging while the McCain team used an Ohio rally for a traditional rollout — was the perfect example of the two different mind-sets when it came to technology that led to the generational and enthusiasm gap.

Mr. Steele, in an interview with The Times right after the election, said he observed Republican colleagues and teenagers alike checking their phones the night Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. was announced as the vice-presidential choice.

"I was sitting there thinking, 'What have we come to, and how did we miss this?' The reality for us is still standing still," Mr. Steele said.

"I want to take a look at what Obama did and not imitate it but improve on it. We need to jump-start this bad boy," he said Nov. 18, two months before winning the chairmanship.

David All, a "modern media" consultant and former aide to Capitol Hill Republicans, was encouraged by the enthusiasm at the tech summit, which he said was "a long time coming."

He said the November election showed 18- to 29-year-olds are the "least Republican generation of all time" and noted, "Obama shored it up entirely for the Democrats."

He's not glum, though, and recalls what he wrote in his first blog at TechRepublican .com nearly two years ago: "Today our revolution begins. Tomorrow we fight."