As the presidential debates get under way tonight, a few Web sites are trying to snag a slice of the politically interested audience without overtly competing with television.
Some are offering streaming media of the debates going live today at 6 p.m. PT. Others have launched their own online debates, and still others are surveying the political beliefs of computer users.
"This is the first presidential election to be affected by the Internet," Doug Bailey, senior adviser to Web White & Blue 2000, said in a statement. The political Web site is hosting an online debate called the "Rolling Cyber Debate," which Bailey said "represents a natural evolution of the debate process that began 40 years ago with the Nixon-Kennedy televised debates."
Television remains the powerhouse medium for presidential candidates. But analysts, professors and other experts agree that the Web offers coverage far beyond what's available in newspapers and television. It's the place to go to research a candidate's voting record, review speeches and examine public blunders.
And for a while, new sites seemed to pop up every few weeks, with some boldly proclaiming that their emergence would revolutionize democracy.
It's true that a voter registration effort is under way, and perhaps someday online voting will be commonplace, but analysts say that voters remain apathetic and that most political Web sites will probably not survive beyond the November election.
Despite the grim prediction, many online companies and organizations seem to be taking advantage of the wide appeal of the debates.
Yahoo is offering streaming media of tonight's tussle. Web White & Blue 2000, a nonprofit, nonpartisan project of the Markle Foundation, is hosting on ongoing cyberdebate among the candidates. And Evote.com is among the groups taking the political temperature of Web surfers.
In addition, the Commission on Presidential Debates is actively promoting the upcoming televised debates on its Web site and making an effort to get out voter education information.
The commission, a private organization established in 1987 to sponsor and produce presidential debates, also offers chat sessions with political leaders and provides information in Spanish, according to its site. It also allows viewers to phone in debate topics in a survey underwritten by Tellme Networks.
But the site isn't without its critics. One group has established its own Web presence at a site called Debatethis.org. The group has been dogging the commission for weeks over attempts at opening up the national televised debates to third-party candidates such as Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader.
According to the Web site, the group crashed the commission's offices, staging a daylong sit-in followed by promises to protest tonight's debate at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
Aside from the disruptions, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush are scheduled to match up again Oct. 11 and 17.