Web design company seeks to give GOP candidates the edge

WASHINGTON - See something similar among the Web sites for President Bush's re-election campaign, the National Rifle Association or Ohio Sen. George Voinovich?

They were all created by a Richfield, Ohio, Internet design company known for churning out inventive and easy to navigate Web pages for the nation's top-tier Republican candidates and conservative-leaning groups.

In an era where everything counts in the race for votes, New Media Communications is trying to close the gap between running successful Internet ventures -- such as former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean raising an unprecedented amount of cash online -- and actually winning elections.

"Saying you are going to get 'x' number of people to the polls isn't rocket science, but time and time again, campaigns fall short of that mark," said company president and CEO Mike Connell. "By doing something pioneering, something innovative, campaign Web sites can help give you an edge, and that is what we are striving for."

Here's how it works: Instead of being an online brochure of pictures and reading material, a successful campaign Web site should empower its readers to get off-line and do something -- write a letter to the editor, throw a house party, start a blog or campaign door to door.

On the Republican National Committee site, which was designed by New Media, supporters are encouraged to sign up to become "Team Leaders," where they can earn points by doing these kind of activities. Visitors to the Ohio Republican Party site can download "talking points" about issues important to the president's campaign and use them when calling radio talk shows.

"You want to take passive browsers and turn them, first, into supporters, and then, have them graduate into activists," Connell said.

Phil Noble, a political consultant who runs PoliticsOnline, said an effective Web site won't make a lousy campaign a good campaign, but it can take a race with a vibrant candidate and a good message and generate enough buzz to raise money and get needed volunteers.

"It can be decisive. Look at Howard Dean," Noble said. "I used to say the difference between a candidate who uses the Internet very well and one who doesn't use it at all would be 3 to 5 percentage points. It's probably twice that now."

Other examples of novel Internet ventures include New Media's site RepealTheTax.com, which helped Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and the activist group Citizens for Tax Repeal raise money and collect signatures to fight a sales tax hike, and DraftWesleyClark.com, which played a role in persuading Clark to run for president.

"This isn't about topdown control anymore," said John Hlinko, a Democrat who started the Clark site and now works for the activist group Grassroots Enterprise. "The campaigns that empower their supporters are the ones that are going to win."

That's not to say that a good Web site is all a candidate needs.

A successful Internet strategy should also include an e-mail list of supporters, online advertising and the ability to change tactics based on what issues resonate best with voters, said Michael Cornfield, former research director at George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.

Connell's company has a good reputation among GOP strategists because the former Capitol Hill staffer -- he worked on the elder President Bush's campaign in Iowa in 1988 -- understands politics and technology.

"If we just went out and talked to a regular technology company, it would be very hard to integrate what we want to do for the campaign," said Michael Turk, e-campaign director for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

New Media, which started in 1994, designed Bush's site for his 2000 campaign after running a Web site for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 1998. It also has won awards for sites created for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft.

GovTech Solutions, a spinoff from New Media Communications, was created in 2000 to produce sites for federal lawmakers and agencies. Its clients include 27 members of Congress from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to Ohio Reps. Bob Ney and Dave Hobson.

Based on that track record, Voinovich campaign manager Matt Carle said it was a no brainer that the Ohio senator would use New Media for his campaign site.

"They are an Ohio company, they have a national reputation and they have very competitive rates," Carle said.

Still, Connell admits that there is a lot of competition on the Net, especially from Web savvy Democrats.

"It's a highly competitive environment. Technology is changing so much and a lot of technologies can be copied fairly readily," he said. "You need to have an unfolding strategy where you are developing things fast enough that they can never catch up with you, and you save some of your best items for later."

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