Tiny Town Blazes New Campaign Trail, Using Social Network

The last time Columbus, Kentucky was a significant part of the national political dialog was more than 200 years ago, when Thomas Jefferson proposed moving the national capital here after Washington D.C. was razed.

Now the tiny rural burg of 229 residents is poised again for the historical spotlight, thanks to trendy social networking tools and experimental grassroots digital campaigning that’s taken center stage in the 2008 election campaign. This week, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards will announce a stop here in early October, a result of placing his itinerary in the hands of voters through Eventful, a web–based event-planning site, a campaign spokeswoman said.

"I think such visits are important because they engage rural voters," said Shawn Dixon, a 24-year-old activist who helped orchestrate the trip, besting efforts from much larger destinations through clever digital lobbying. "I think people write us off, but when 1,800 people from a region step up and say we want people to come to speak, that gives rural Americans a voice."

Edwards' journey to an obscure town in the Bluegrass state highlights the often-unpredictable ripple effects from unprecedented Web 2.0-enabled community involvement in this campaign. So far this year, the candidates and electorate have been subjected to a CNN/YouTube debate that was criticized for falling flat and not being community-oriented enough. Earlier this month, they saw a half-hearted attempt by Yahoo to give voters a voice in interpreting candidates' messages through a promotion of its presidential mash-up.

San Diego-based Eventful, founded in 2004, is used by performers and businesses worldwide to interact with their audiences and customers. Musicians and festival organizers use the tool to promote their events and determine venues. More than 20,000 musicians, for example, have asked their fans to help select tour stops. Since the application's launch in 2006, there have been five million "demands" in all for performers registered on the Eventful website, said company CEO Jordan Glazier.

With a mere three or four visits from presidential candidates so far this year, Kentucky ranks among the most neglected states on the national political stage.

Since its primary takes place on May 20 -- well after the agenda-setting Iowa caucuses in January and the crush of Super Tuesday primaries in February, Kentucky isn't attracting much attention from the presidential candidates.

But in June, Edwards promised to speak in the city that piled up the most demands for him by July 18, through Eventful.

Columbus, with a population of 229, won the contest with 1,870 demands. The town is located on a bend in the Mississippi river in Hickman County, which is home to just under 5,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Hickman County residents won over larger metropolitan areas such as Denver, Dallas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The city with the second-most demands for Edwards was Eureka, California, with a population of about 26,000 people.

Hickman's victory was largely due to the efforts of Dixon, a politically passionate Columbus native who is now a first-year scholarship law student at the top-rated New York University School of Law. The son of two factory workers, Hickman, 24, is a Democratic activist, the first person in his family to go to college and an Edwards supporter. (He's also running an internet campaign to unseat Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.)

Dixon began his campaign in May with an e-mail blast to his friends and acquaintances asking them to join Eventful to demand an Edwards visit to Columbus. He followed up by posting the request on Facebook and MySpace.

On Eventful, Dixon described his hometown this way: "Columbus, Kentucky is a small town in Western Kentucky that boasts a population of 229 people and is about a 50-minute drive from the closest McDonalds. Like many rural communities across the south, job loss in the face of rising healthcare costs and education costs have crippled the economy."

A visit from Edwards would provide a rare opportunity to highlight important issues facing rural America, he wrote.

"We want to see John Edwards come to real rural America and address the problems we face and hear his plan for revitalizing small American communities like ours!" he wrote on this Eventful post.

Dixon says that Facebook was particularly useful in spreading the word because he had about 800 "friends" in that network whom he knew personally through high school, college and work. He also wrote about his effort on the popular liberal blog, DailyKos.

Dixon also wants to use the visit to dispel the notion that all Southern states would automatically vote Republican. Bush carried Hickman County with 60 percent of the votes in 2004.

So far in this campaign however, state residents' financial donations to the presidential candidates have flowed primarily into the coffers of the Democratic candidates, with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in the lead, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The event has also provided welcome publicity to Edwards, who is running on an anti-poverty platform and who trails both 2008 presidential campaign rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama according to several national polls.

Several local newspapers ran stories and editorials about the Eventful contest and about Dixon. Wolf Blitzer's "Situation Room" on CNN also spotlighted the contest several times over the summer. And when Edwards visits Columbus in October, at least one national news show is expected to show up to cover the event.

Bruce Cunningham, a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in Columbus, said he is looking forward to hearing Edwards speak about the Iraq war, education, affordable high-speed internet access and health care. Columbus currently doesn't have access to broadband. Cunningham and his family have a dial-up connection.

"People can't afford (broadband) in this area," he said. "Most people in this area live pay check to pay check at $8 an hour -- it's really hard for families."

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