Fri, Feb 02, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Web plays key role in elections

Gone are the days when a presidential hopeful could get away with making the odd gaffe in public. Today, even the slightest mistake is likely to end up on YouTube for millions to examine at length

By Patrick Healy  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

Some of the nation's most enduring memories of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton -- memories she would happily erase -- were etched on television more than a decade ago: She didn't stay home and bake cookies in her marriage. She wasn't "some little woman, standing by my man, like Tammy Wynette." The headband. The hairstyles.

On Saturday, one week into her presidential campaign, the threat of a new, unflattering image surfaced: MSNBC used a microphone to capture Clinton singing the national anthem in Des Moines, Iowa. Her voice was, shall we say, off key. The recording was quickly downloaded to YouTube, the video-sharing Web site, and the Drudge Report -- no friend of Clinton -- was steering readers to watch it (by Tuesday afternoon, more than 800,000 had).

Clinton advisers found out about the YouTube video within minutes and their campaign war room made a calculated decision: not to respond at all. They did not want to draw news media attention to the video; nor did they want to upstage their preferred news of the day, Clinton's debut in Iowa.

"Senator Clinton's candidacy is not premised on her ability to carry a tune," said Howard Wolfson, a senior adviser and war room manager. "We did not see it as a significant threat."

Twenty-four hours later, no news outlets had made a fuss about the video and the Clinton team privately declared victory.

The video clip may have been trivial, but the brief episode surrounding it illustrated how visual and audio technologies like video streaming have the potential to drive political news in unexpected directions, and how White House candidates are aggressively monitoring and trying to master them.

Ambivalence among candidates about communications technology is nothing new; Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign used the Internet as a fundraising ATM, then stumbled after the widely circulated video of the so-called Dean Scream. But in the 2008 race, the blessings and curses are much closer to the heart of the candidates' strategies and their determination to control how they are presented to voters.

Clinton's campaign, for instance, has already shown that it is determined to use every new media tool to advance her carefully developed image as a centrist, and to re-introduce her to Americans as warmer, more relaxed and confident.

A Republican candidate, former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, most recently moved to regain control of his image as a social conservative after being confronted with video clips from 1994 that showed him defending abortion rights and gay rights. As that video moved through the YouTube universe, Romney responded quickly, saying he was wrong on some issues in 1994, a statement that was swiftly captured on YouTube as well.

"In previous campaigns you'd think or hope that the threat would just go away, but now it's imperative that you attack back quickly and personally, and with advanced technology," said Kevin Madden, an adviser to Romney.

As with Clinton's failure to carry a tune, though, not everyone sees an invariable need for a quick rejoinder. A potential embarrassment popped up recently for former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina when old video surfaced on YouTube showing him fussing with his hair for two minutes. The clip recalled the Breck Girl sobriquet that the White House applied to him in the last presidential campaign.

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