Campaigns seek students online

Josh Verges

The political revolution won’t be televised but it might be on a webcast.

With Howard Dean out of the presidential race, President George W. Bush and his challenger Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., are vying for the crown of Internet candidate.

And, more than any other state, Minnesota and its students are responding.

The Bush campaign launched a student Web site two weeks ago in hopes of organizing more student volunteers.

The site features a NCAA-style tournament bracket, pitting 32 states against one another. The state with the most signed-up student volunteers by April 5 will be named national champion.

Minnesota leads the nation in student volunteers. The site claims some 34,000 volunteers, including more than 650 from the University.

“(Volunteers) write letters to newspapers, recruit other voters and call in to talk shows,” Bush spokeswoman Sharon Castillo said.

An organization working to elect Kerry is also getting help from University students.

Each time a student participates in a campaign at clickbackamerica.org – by writing a personal essay or e-signing a petition – screenwriter and producer Stephen Bing donates a dollar on the student’s behalf to the MoveOn.org Voter Fund.

MoveOn.org is a progressive organization with more than 2 million members, which has run television commercials portraying Bush in a negative light, according to the Web site.

George Washington University graduate student Ari Rabin-Havt launched Click Back last week to raise student political awareness.

Rabin-Havt’s stated goal is to collect $1 million for the Voter Fund before November to buy advertisements and help pay for voter outreach.

“The purpose is to get college-aged students progressively, politically active,” a Clickback spokeswoman said, “without having to donate money.”

So far, students from more than 2,000 colleges have participated in the Clickback campaign, pulling $90,000 in donations.

University students are third-most active on the site, having earned more than $700.

Jake Grassel, state chairman of the College Republicans and a student at Bethel College – which boasts the fifth-most Bush volunteers in the country – said Minnesota student interest does not surprise him.

“It’s a very important state in the presidential election,” he said. “The president has put a lot of emphasis on winning it.”

Grassel said Bush student-volunteers bring the president’s message to the greater community as well as coordinate events on campus.

Castillo called the Bush student site “very good, aggressive (and) high-tech.”

“The only thing Democrats are doing (online) is raising money from young people,” Castillo said. “We are engaging voters.”

Although the Bush site might be more attractive, Minnesota for Kerry Webmaster and Internet organizer Michael Sullivan said theirs is more engaging.

The Kerry national campaign Web site features an interactive Web log modeled after the Dean blog. The Bush site, Sullivan noted, includes student comments but does not provide a place for unrestricted discussion.

“We’re a little bit sticking our necks out there by letting people discuss things,” he said.

Sullivan credited the Dean campaign with demonstrating the potential of the Internet, and said many of Dean’s supporters are now helping Kerry.

“Every dollar spent (by Dean volunteers), every door knocked on” is not wasted, Sullivan said. “It has all called the country’s attention to Bush’s failures.”

Where fund raising was Dean’s primary online goal, the Kerry site has focused on organizing volunteers, Sullivan said.

Kerry’s site recruits “MeetUp” participants to get together once a month. Likewise, the Bush site asks visitors to host recruitment “Block Parties.”

Castillo said the Bush site has 6 million subscribers to its e-mail service. The campaign will launch eight additional sites targeted at demographics such as women, Democrats for Bush and first respondents/law enforcement, she said.

The Kerry site has 15 similar community pages in addition to the student section.

“March to Victory,” the Bush project, is the second volunteer recruitment effort from the Bush campaign aimed at college students, both sports-themed.

Last fall, “Kickoff ’04 Bush” signed up 5,000 volunteers at 15 college football games around the United States, Castillo said.