'08 Candidates Break the News on the Net

Sen. Hillary Clinton tossed the traditional speech out the window and turned to the Web to break her big news.

Sitting comfortably at home, with great lighting and no reporters, the New York Democrat announced that she was "in to win" the 2008 presidential race.

Former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., also posted videos to their Web sites to announce they were running.

"You're going to see the 2008 election being contested as much on the Internet as it was in past elections on television," said Andrew Rasiej, founder and publisher of Personal Democracy Forum.

Clinton said she chose the Web because she wanted to "reach millions of people throughout our country all at the same time, in the same way."

A study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found 75 million Americans turned to the net for campaign news during the last presidential election.

The candidates expect that number to be a lot higher this time. And they may have other reasons for turning to the Web.

"One of the reasons people like online announcements is because it can be completely controlled," said Zephyr Teachout, national director of the Sunlight Foundation. "There is no threat of strange questions, or tripping, or making a bad joke."

But there is the risk of a bad edit. At one point during Clinton's announcement, her arm jumps from the arm of the couch to her lap.

Teachout was director of Internet operations for Howard Dean's campaign, which tapped broad grassroots support on the Internet and showed the power of a savvy net strategy.

The key to Dean's plan was not just to use the Web to talk at his supporters, but to allow them to network. Rasiej said it's such ceding of power to the volunteers that allows the Web part of a campaign to flourish.

By announcing online, Clinton was "trying to show that she's 'netty,' that she gets it," Teachout said. But she suspects the free-and-easy Internet ethic may not suit Clinton's political style.

"My bet is it's going to be very hard for Clinton, especially, to sort of let go," Teachout said. "She's a professional and she's using the Internet in a very professional way, and they're going to build a massive massive database of names."

But Teachout added Clinton may not be willing to give up the central control over that database.

In the era of blogs and YouTube, Web supporters will soon take their candidate's message beyond the "official" Website.

"We are about to enter the era of voter-generated content," Rasiej said. "You're going to see citizen activists take the technology into their own hands, create their own message on behalf of the candidate they support, and seek to distribute it on their own."

With the campaign buses rolling down the information superhighway, the 2008 race is under way in cyberspace.