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Conventional politics wired

Convention season is now officially open and, all of a sudden, it seems that every Republican and Democrat is a Netizen.

Convention season is now officially open and, all of a sudden, it seems that every delegate is a Netizen.

For the first time ever, delegates will cast votes electronically at workstations installed in special podiums, a system that will automatically tally and post the ballots within 15 minutes, compared with the hour necessary to count votes by hand. Delegates will also be able to send each other email and keep track of last-minute schedule changes on the system.

The changes won't be confined to the convention floors. Live audio and video of the daily events will be available on the Internet at the Republican National Committee's Web site using CU-SeeMe videoconferencing software. Chat rooms will be available for those who want to debate the issues, and all the necessary software to participate can be downloaded from the site, complete with a special help desk for technical support.

At the official Democratic National Party Web site, users can participate in a "Soapbox" forum that combines audio and chat technologies, allowing speakers to engage in online discussions with Web audiences. Participants can type questions in and the speaker(s) answer them by speaking into a microphone. Users can then hear the answers to their questions in real time.

If all this seems a bit contrived, there may be good reason. Both parties want to show that they?re relevant in the Information Age, countering criticism that their special interests and predictable platforms make them obsolete, especially in the minds of younger voters.

Dr. Barbara O'Connor is a professor of Communication Studies at Sacramento State University in California and director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media Studies. O'Connor supports the parties' high-tech strategy saying that young people in particular are looking for information but not in the traditional way.

The Internet has given people the ability to find primary source material, she said, plus it has the right combination of qualities. "People can do it when they want. They want to talk to others. The popularity of chat forums demonstrates they care. And they want to view something without it being filtered by the press."

The GOP, which particularly wants to upgrade its image, is actively employing such Internet technology at their convention this week in San Diego. There, they are turning some of the more prominent delegates and visitors into on-the-spot commentators through real-time digital transmissions. Legislators and others will be prompted by special volunteers to record their impressions of the convention into an audio file via cell phones.

Adding to the high-tech hype are some prominently wired Republicans on the convention floor: members of the Christian Coalition--a group that represents many of the most politically conservative issues characteristic of the more entrenched ranks of the party. Armed ubiquitously with laptops and staffing virtual war rooms with state-of-the-art hardware and software, the coalition has launched an all-out assault within the party to win members over.

Finally, the equivalent of corporate sponsorships by companies that make the products are using the political media mega-events to showcase their wares, and they have been actively seeking publicity for them in the weeks leading up to the conventions. AT&T and Lucent have trumpeted the fact that they created the official intranet of the 1996 Republican convention, which started Monday.

Not to be outdone, the Democrats are planning their own high-tech circus at their convention, which begins August 26 in Chicago.

Already taking full advantage of the new campaigning possibilities of the Internet, the Democrats are offering "on demand" commercials on its Web site from candidates in a variety of races. Click on a sponsor's banner and special Shockwave animation of corporate symbols is activated. Probably a more successful venture will be the live Internet radio broadcast of interviews with convention attendees.

Other places to go for reports include CBS News, which says it will provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of the conventions on the Internet with video streaming technology from VDOnet and Internet servers from Compaq. Although the picture is pretty jerky--VDO provides only 10 to 15 frames per second--CBS can rightfully boast it is the only site showing real-time video coverage on the Internet. The National Journal magazine and PoliticsNow, a Web-based offspring of ABC News, Newsweek, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, adds a humorous twist to the coverage by giving visitors the ability to vote on some lesser-known planks of the GOP platform, as well as a place for visitors to write their own humorous planks.

Prodigy will host GOP Interactive Convention '96, which will allow users to become "virtual delegates." Users will be able to debate the issues with party members and officials at the event, and even send email to campaigners. Supply a good enough sound bite to former Los Angeles County prosecutor Christopher Darden, and it might get in his speech at the convention.