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Presidential Candidates Jockey For Frontrunner Spot Online

By Eleanor Randolph
Los Angeles Times
NEW YORK

Forty years ago, the nation's more adventurous politicians tried buying ads on an unpredictable new gizmo called television. In much the same spirit, Republican presidential candidates this year have started peddling their messages in cyberspace.

"It's gotten so that if you're not out there, people will think there's something wrong," said Mike Low, a computer consultant for the presidential campaign of magazine publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes Jr.

Although President Clinton's campaign has not yet set up an official web site, each of his GOP challengers has launched a "home page" on the Internet's World Wide Web. These high-tech ads generally feature grainy photos of the candidates, favorite sound-bites from the campaign and, of course, ways to volunteer actual time and real money.

Most of the candidate home pages are carefully serious about their mission, in contrast to the growing competition from mock pages created by computer buffs. Many of these counter-pages aim to amuse; others take a nastier turn. Use of a similar computer address is one way they can entice the unsuspecting browser.

The only difference between the official Dole page and one fake page, for example, is three letters in the address - .org versus .com.

The reasons for the rush to the World Wide Web are understandable - it is a cheap and easy way to reach millions of American computers. The problem is that even the experts aren't certain who is signing onto these machines and, more importantly, whether or how they vote.

"Right now, I'd say what's important is the potential. The potential of the Internet has been barely tapped," said Gary Koops, press secretary for Texas Senator Phil Gramm's (RTexas) presidential campaign.

Although the candidate home pages so far have not been used for political mudslinging, the first signs of future battles are surfacing.