MONTGOMERY - Campaigning today is a lot more sophisticated than planting a sign in somebody's lawn.
Most campaigns have fax machines that spew computer-broadcast campaign updates across the state.
A news conference in Montgomery might be broadcast via satellite to reporters in several cities. A channel surfer might find 30-minute infomercials on cable-access channels that broadcast the segment over and over.
A host of new campaign tactics are available this election.
While some candidates are sticking to the tried-and-true, most running for national office are taking advan-tage of the new technology.
Are the new methods reaching more voters? And is the information they are getting helpful or confusing? While some see the new technology as a benefit to democracy, others warn it may simply widen the gap between poli-ticians and the populace they represent.
Spinning a new web
If you have a computer and a link to the Internet, finding information on candidates is just a few clicks of the mouse away.
The most sophisticated of those cover the Presidential race and make available major speeches, policy papers and press releases.
"I've been surprised at how effective it has been," said Trevor Kaufman, president of KPE, the New York-based Web production and consulting firm that developed the Clinton-Gore Web site.
"There has been a lot of concrete interaction between the campaign and the public."
More than 100,000 people have sent e-mail after visiting the site, which was launched July 10, according to Philippe Stessel, he site's producer. Almost 6,000 people have offered to volunteer for the Clinton-Gore campaign af-ter accessing the campaign's home page.
They all received e-mailed responses directing them to local campaign offices.
Kaufman noted an interesting phenomenon which demonstrates people are actually using the site. While it averages 150,000 hits (visits by someone browsing the Internet) on a normal day, during the 24 hours after the presi-dential debate, that number jumped to at least 450,000.
Cyberspace is proving to be just as competitive a political battlefield as the real world. The Dole campaign had its site up first. The Clinton-Gore page responded with the launch of a more technologically sophisticated site. The Dole team regrouped and redesigned with more bells and whistles. The Clinton-Gore camp countered.
Home pages have advantages over other popular forms of political communication. Television ads are an ex-pensive one-way medium over which a message comes and goes in a flash and the viewer has no option of respond-ing. The toll-free, call-in response lines have been around, but they take more effort than the one-touch e-mailing ca-pability of a Web page.
Closer to home, both 3rd District Congressional candidates, Democrat Ted Little and Republican Bob Riley, have colorful home pages, complete with photos, press clippings and position statements. It's the same for the Senate race between Republican Jeff Sessions and Democrat Roger Bedford.
While Alabama candidates may use the same technology, their efforts are not as sophisticated as those of the presidential campaigns. The information posted is often out-of-date campaign propaganda that will have virtually no impact on the races, said Jacksonville State University political science professor Jerry Gilbert.
"Most of those (Web pages) seem to be the work of some isolated computer geek associated with the cam-paign," Gilbert said.
"Down the road, I see much more extensive use of that technology. It does have a lot of potential."
Little's campaign manager, Robert Gibbs, admitted he had not been to his own candidate's Web site.
Gibbs predicted in the 1998 elections, and certainly by 2000, there would be much more effective use of new technology.
Carol Brown, the Alabama Democratic Party's spokeswoman, said the state party has put up a Web page that links the party with its candidates and has available news like the state party platform.
Jennifer Greeson, spokeswoman for Bedford, said their campaign gets eight or nine messages a day.
"I think it helps communicate to people you might otherwise not reach," she said.
Riley's campaign manager, Bill Johnson, said the campaign has gotten about a dozen e-mails, one from a gospel-reggae singer in Hawaii who is also named Bob Riley.
"You get that kind of stuff," Johnson said.
New approaches to TV
One new idea that has been effective for Riley's campaign is the infomercial. Gilbert calls the longer spots on cable access stations "the most novel thing I've seen" this campaign.
"I have heard a lot of people that watched those," he said.
Riley's campaign produced a 30-minute infomercial about the candidate, bought up six-hour blocks of cable access time and showed it over and over. Riley was running the 30-minute ads on local cable channels for $50 a spot. He could repeat the infomercials for hours and still not spend as much as a 30-second ad on a network television sta-tion.
"The thing that surprised us is how many people watched it," Johnson said.
The traditional 30-second spots on broadcast television are not only expensive, they're too limiting, Johnson said. "You just can't get across who you are as a person," he said.
"Yeah, but nobody sees it.," argues Karen Cartee, a professor of advertising and speech communication at the University of Alabama.
"Maybe 1 percent of the people. All those $5 ads you can buy don't add up to much if no one is watching them."
She said that it is still best to buy spots during the evening news programs because people tend to confuse the ads with the newscasts and are likely in a couple of days, to report the content of an ad as a fact.
To target African-Americans, it's best to buy time during shows that feature black actors. However, Democ-ratic candidates often buy the majority of their ads around football games, "because that is where they are weakest: in the white-male category," she said.
Ms. Cartee believes another of Riley's techniques has been more effective: the use of videotapes.
Riley has mailed out tapes produced by the national Republican Party titled "On Our Team." It details, in a hyperbolic newscast-like fashion, the drive by organized labor to support Democratic candidates and implores busi-nesses to counteract labor's efforts by giving to Republicans.
A quicker way to reach a mass audience over TV is via satellite. When Sessions' campaign held a news con-ference to attack Bedford, it set up a satellite link so those outside Montgomery could attend and participate in the news conference.
"We have employed every available technology to get Jeff's message out," said his spokesperson, Claire Aus-tin.
Good for Democracy?
Some are ecstatic about the new technology. Others warn about its potential for misuse.
It allows politicians and special interest groups to get their information out more directly.
"This is the first time campaigns have been able to directly interact with the public," the ClintonGore de-signer, Kaufman said.
"Traditionally, every piece of information the public gets during the campaign is filtered through the media."
That makes it possible for people to evaluate the candidate's direct message and compare it with the coverage from the media.
There are drawbacks, though.
All this information is available to limited groups of people right now, and it is probably the people who are the best informed already. This contributes to the "information gap," as Cartee describes it.
Auburn University political scientist Christa Slanton sees the more ominous use of the medium - as a method of spreading propaganda.
"What I am seeing candidates do more cleverly is giving the message that they want to give. They bypass the people who want to ask them questions,' she said.
The media, she feels, have distanced themselves from the people they serve almost as much as politicians have. They tend to allow politicians to get away with short, simplistic, and often-repeated answers to complicated questions.
That, she said, keeps the dialogue "very narrow" and deprives the public of the objective and complete in-formation they need to make decisions.