SECOND LIFE, Virtual World – To find volunteer Redaktisto Noble, you have to go to John Edwards presidential campaign headquarters. Not in Iowa or New Hampshire, but in cyberspace.
There, Noble can lead visitors along a boardwalk lined with billboards describing campaign issues such as Iraq and health care. On the way out, visitors can pick up free "Edwards for President" T-shirts that their animated alter-egos can wear.
It's old-fashioned campaign work in a new setting. Noble works at Edwards' virtual campaign headquarters in the animated online world called Second Life that counts more than 5 million members — many of whom can vote in real life.
Democrat or Republican, the White House campaigns are using new online tools this year in an effort to attract supporters who they hope will give not only their votes, but their time and money to the effort. The technology is new, but not the political chase — candidates want to be where the voters are. And Americans today are spending their time online.
"When the industrial revolution came, candidates learned real fast that they had to go stand at the factory gate," said Joe Trippi, a political consultant who managed the Internet-savvy Howard Dean presidential campaign four years ago. "Why? Because at 5 o'clock when that whistle blew, that's where the workers would be. You're campaigning where the community is."
Which is why you will find every presidential candidate on MySpace, a networking site which counts more than 64 million current members. Visitors to Republican Mitt Romney's page can click and play Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation." Republican John McCain lists "24" as his favorite TV show and "Viva Zapata" as his favorite movie.
Democrat Barack Obama recently became the first candidate to sign up 100,000 MySpace friends. And he has his own version of social networking called My.BarackObama.com that has allowed Virginia mothers Ruthi David and Kulia Petzoldt to become active in politics for the first time.
They formed Families for Obama on Feb. 10, the day the Illinois senator formally announced his candidacy, and they've already grown to 24 chapters nationwide. The say the online tools have allowed them to become engaged and estimate that 80 percent of the chapter administrators are also first-time organizers.
Petzoldt points out that hiring a baby sitter to volunteer at campaign headquarters would have been too expensive and making phone bank calls from home problematic with her toddler screaming in the background. But she hosts regular coffee and campaigning playgroup meetings at her home in Burke, Va., where their children recently babbled and ground Goldfish crackers into the rug while their mothers discussed the text of Obama's Iraq legislation.
The event was advertised on the My.BarackObama.com Web site for anyone in the area to sign up to attend. They also use that site to recruit members, blog and solicit donations. They complement with another site with an easier to remember URL, http://www.familiesforobama.org, where they can also have threaded discussions, share photos, keep a Google calendar of national events and post party guides.
"We were going to get our kids 'Neglected Children for Obama' T-shirts,'" Petzoldt joked. She and David estimate they each spend about 20 hours a week trying to get others excited about putting Obama in the White House.
"I probably couldn't have done this if we weren't doing a lot of it online, the organizing any way," David said. "I've got three kids."
But online activity is no predictor of electoral success. In 2004, Dean generated excitement online as did Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont in Connecticut last year, thanks in part to groups such as Meetup.com and MoveOn.org. Both faltered in their election bids.
Instead of building his own social network, Edwards is reaching out to those that are already established. He is on YouTube, Facebook, 43Things, Del.icio.us, Essembly, Flickr, Gather, Orkut, Ning, Metacafe, Revver, Yahoo! 360, Tagworld and the list goes on and on.
Mathew Gross, Edwards' senior adviser for online communications, said that way voters "don't have to search for information about you. They've already seen you on YouTube or MySpace. They've found you through their preferred medium."
The Second Life headquarters was designed by volunteers, but they say they coordinate with the Edwards campaign. Noble is alter ego of a real life schoolteacher Jeremy Aldrich of Harrisonburg, Va.
"We want people to fly over and say, 'What's that?'" Aldrich said in a telephone interview. Flying, it turns out, is one way to get around Second Life. Aldrich said the goal is to draw visitors into the issues and show them how to get involved "in a way that isn't possible in other games and is more engaging than a Web page."
That's also the idea behind Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton's site called "I Can Be President," where young women, girls and others are encouraged to sign up and realize that anyone can lead the country — even a woman.
The biggest change between e-campaigns in 2004 and 2008 might be the increased availability of broadband that allows more Internet users to download video. Michael Silberman, director of the online consulting firm EchoDitto, said campaigns can get the most out of online video once they stop viewing it as a form of television and use it to have a give-and-take with voters.
"The traditional media creates a certain barrier that makes us as voters a lot more distant to the candidates," Silberman said. "So in the best case scenarios, candidates are using technology to basically enable a conversation with voters and get into a much more personal one-on-one dialogue with voters."
Obama is inviting visitors to his site to contribute their ideas in a feature called "my policy," either through a written message or an audio or video recording. The campaign says the best ideas will be incorporated into Obama's policies.
More than 50,000 people registered to watch Clinton's live video chats and submitted 25,000 questions, according to campaign Internet director Peter Daou.
When a 13-year-old video of Romney defending a woman's right to an abortion appeared on YouTube, the candidate quickly responded in the same medium. His campaign posted a tape of Romney declaring that he was wrong on the issue back then and that he's evolved into a social conservative.
The McCain campaign's militaristic-looking site combines plenty of video of the Arizona senator on the trail with an in-house tool called McCainSpace for his supporters to network and have some fun. He posted his picks in the NCAA tournament and invited others to do the same, with the top scorer winning a fleece jacket with the campaign logo.
The campaign's reward is that it collects valuable contact information from all those who play, which it can use later to solicit donations and build support. Ray Mulrooney, a sports fan from Lancaster, Ohio, was one of the "many thousands" that the campaign says signed up for the basketball pool.
Mulrooney said he's a Democrat, but would be open to voting for a Republican like McCain if he wasn't pleased with the Democratic nominee, and would have proudly worn the fleece jacket if he had won. But, he said, "I probably wouldn't have been on the McCain site if it hadn't had the basketball brackets there."
The technology has come a long way since the last campaign, when Dean became the first presidential candidate with a blog. Gross, who started Dean's blog, remembers how a rival campaigned sniffed that Dean's Web followers were something out of the bar scene from Star Wars.
"Everybody thought we were wasting our time. Then people realized these are real voters," Gross said. "People who are online are just people — no pajamas, no nose rings, no parent's basements."
Chuck DeFeo, who was e-campaign manager for the victorious Bush-Cheney re-election campaign and now works for the conservative Web site Townhall.com, said he was always focused on turning online creativity into votes.
He said the whole idea was that people who visited the campaign's Web site were encouraged to leave it and talk to others who weren't involved. For instance, they could download a list of nearby households to make neighborly visits encouraging a vote for the president. They were encouraged to send personalized e-mails to friends asking them to sign up to help and had tools to track who responded.
"What we did was empower his supporters to carry his message," DeFeo said.