There was a time, when any political candidate worth his salt needed to master a cutting-edge new technology -- television.
Remember the first televised debate in 1960, pitting Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy? Nixon showed up for the appearance pale with no makeup on, looking rumpled. Kennedy was the perfect picture of health and youth. He won the debate and the election.
What television was to politics then, the Internet is to politics now.
Changing the Landscape
"You had to master television after that to have any chance of being elected in this country. In the future you're going to have to master the Net and master being able to connect with people and get them involved or you won't survive," says Joe Trippi, author of The Revolution Will Not be Televised.
Trippi should know. He was former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's "resident geek," the man who harnessed the Internet and helped build Dean's core of support online.
In this election year, Trippi says, the Internet has changed the political landscape.
"It's changed everything, it's absolutely changed everything. And it's going to keep changing everything."
One of the most critical changes to political discourse is the rising popularity of online political Weblogs -- or "blogs" for short.
Political Debate in Real Time
On blogs, dialogue and debate happens on the fly, often in real time.
For example, on Wednesday of this week, President Bush talked about the war on terror with an audience in King of Prussia, Pa.
Bush said, "These terrorists are hoping to shake the will of the Iraqi people and the American people."
At about the same time, someone named Richard made this entry on a blog: "A majority of the public does not stand with this administration on this war."
That same day, Sen. John Kerry saluted as he walked onto a stage in West Palm Beach, Fla.
The gesture drew immediate ridicule online.
Someone calling himself "Hindrocket" posted a photo of the salute on a blog and wrote a warning to Kerry: "Every time Kerry brings up Vietnam, he opens himself to further body blows by the Swift Boat Vets."
Influencing Media Coverage
Industry watchers say the audience for blogs in general is more than 3.5 million strong, and growing. One group that surveys political blogs believes between 20,000 and 25,000 people are regularly talking about political topics on Weblogs.
Americans aren't gathering on street corners to talk politics like they used to. These days people from every corner of the country are finding each other on screen.
The impact of all this dialogue is hard to gauge, but it is clearly shaping politics and media coverage.
This past week, bloggers pushed hard on the story about controversial documents uncovered by CBS that spoke to President Bush's National Guard service. Many analysts believe all the talk on Weblogs played a part in forcing CBS to re-examine the issue and ultimately issue a statement.
Earlier, during the Republican convention in New York, a Republican congressman decided to drop his bid for re-election after a blog suggested he was gay. That blog is actively trying to out other members of Congress and staffers.
The majority of the political blogs now online are left-leaning.
Markos Moulistsas runs one of the most popular liberal blogs, called the Daily Kos.
"I was driving my family and friends and co-workers crazy ranting about the injustices that I saw everyday," the former Army veteran explains.
He also says bloggers act as gatekeepers to the overwhelming mass of information now available to anyone surfing the Web.
"It's very difficult to find the information that you, yourself are particularly interested in -- and that's what the blogs do, they provide that filter."
The Daily Kos now has more than 200,000 readers a day. It is so successful, in fact, that conservatives say they're trying to emulate it.
For example, redstate.org was created in part as a conservative alternative to the Daily Kos.
For both parties and people from every political persuasion, blogs are liberating. They're bringing politics back to the grassroots level.
"What blogs have really done for politics is they've allowed for a two-way communication between candidates and campaigns to really supporters and voters. And they allow both to communicate with each other directly. I mean we haven't seen that in U.S. politics since the early days of the republic," says one blogger.
Political activism that's only a click away.