WASHINGTON – Politicians have not cherished most of their YouTube moments, those snippets of candid camera video posted on the popular Internet site. Now comes a friendlier YouTube politics.
On Wednesday, the online video Web site announced the beginning of a voter education initiative that will serve as an information hub for political candidates to showcase their own videos.
Already on board are the major 2008 presidential candidates — Republicans Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney, and Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama and Bill Richardson.
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"This is such an important election coming up that we just wanted to make sure we did everything we could in terms of helping candidates get their messages out, but also helping voters start a dialogue with those candidates on issues that really hit home at them individually," said Jordan Hoffner, YouTube's director of content partnerships.
The new effort is part of a technological awakening by political campaigns to the myriad ways of reaching voters, beyond the traditional mix of coffee klatsches, stump speeches and expensive broadcast ads.
Not only have political candidates refined their own campaign Web sites, they are now creating profile pages on MySpace.com, the heavily trafficked online hangout, and tailoring their video messages to YouTube.
As with any medium used by politicians, the Internet can be an asset and a hazard.
Former Sen. George Allen, R-Va., never seemed to recover from a video that showed him using the word "macaca" to address a young man of Indian descent who was a campaign worker for his opponent.
Video clips on YouTube showed former Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., nodding off during a committee hearing. Both Allen and Burns lost their re-election campaigns last November.
But politicians are recognizing the power of the Internet, and YouTube in particular.
In January, a video on YouTube showed Romney voicing moderate social positions during a 1994 debate with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Romney replied promptly with his own YouTube video, disavowing his old views.
Republican pollster David Winston said YouTube benefits from having two audiences — young viewers and journalists.
"Here's the challenge that these campaigns have: There is this huge clutter, and how do you break through the clutter," Winston said. "One of the things that YouTube has been shown to be able to do, with some success, is to help break through that clutter."
The new YouTube site will allow candidates to feature their own video "channels" in one location. There is no cost to appearing on the site. The video is the same as what the candidates have on their own sites, though it might be packaged differently.
McCain, for instance, has a series of short videos, many of them filmed in one session against a simple white backdrop. He addresses his vision of honor, he discusses government spending, the environment and his affinity for presidents Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt.
YouTube officials said that for now, the site is limited to candidates of legally registered political parties, but said they might consider opening it to other political entities, such as groups that advocate for or against candidates.
YouTube's Hoffner envisions a video give-and-take between candidates and viewers.
"When users post comments or post video comments and the candidates respond in kind, that's just going to take on a life of its own," he said.
And that's when politicians, who tend to obsess about staying on message, could enter riskier territory.
"These technologies are not as controlled or controllable as other technologies," said Bruce Bimber, a political scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara and an expert on technology and politics. "What's more interesting to me will be the adaptation and use of what video is posted there as people comment on it, post links to it ... and it gets out of the channel itself that it was intended for."
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