WASHINGTON – It's not just Earthbound voters who are intensely following the U.S. presidential campaign: The race also is a hot topic in the virtual world of "Second Life."
John McCain supporters and Barack Obama supporters — more accurately, the personas they have created — meet regularly in "Second Life," described on its Web site as "an online, 3D virtual world imagined and created by its residents."
They watch the presidential debates together. They make T-shirts, banners and yard signs. They hold voter registration drives and rally on Capitol Hill.
"Second Life" is an Internet-based interactive world with an economy and cultures developed by its users, who create avatars — their personas in the virtual world — representing themselves in whatever form they want. More than 14 million users from around the world participate.
Two men orchestrate the major presidential politicking in "Second Life": Keith Mandell, 36, with the Obama camp, and Gordon Olivant, 43, with the McCainites. Neither has any connection to the real presidential campaigns.
"My main focus is to get people to commit to do real-life work," said Mandell, a real-life attorney whose avatar bears a slight resemblance to Obama and goes by the name "Cubsfan Pugilist."
Mandell founded his group of Obama supporters in December 2006, before the Illinois senator announced his candidacy early the following year.
The group has grown to more than 1,000 members, including pirates, people with tails and a floating ball of light.
"I had been supportive of his potential candidacy for a long time," Mandell said. "It was a few bucks to set up the group, and then I just got going."
Olivant began organizing the McCain crowd last spring and has attracted about 400 members to his virtual "Straight Talk Cafe."
At first he hosted discussions with suggested topics such as tax breaks or Second Amendment rights. Now he finds groups gathered independently at all hours chatting or swapping Internet rumors about Obama.
"It takes time to build up an audience and a following," Olivant said. "I imagine if I did this for another year, we'd have a very different situation because that's just hard work. It's not magic. It's being there, talking to someone, engaging them and getting them hooked. You can't accelerate that process a whole lot."
Olivant has been working as a freelance writer since leaving his job as the managing director of a large corporation. His avatar, Wyatt Forster, is a young white man who switches between wearing a McCain T-shirt and a blue Hawaiian shirt and jeans.
"If one person voted for [McCain] as a result of this, I view that as positive," Olivant said. "Maybe a few people will vote who wouldn't have voted. This was my way of doing something this year that I could do on my own to support a candidate I truly believe in."