Maryland candidate turns to Internet CAMPAIGN 1994

August 05, 1994|By Frank Langfitt and Sascha Segan | Frank Langfitt and Sascha Segan,Sun Staff Writers

Move over, Mr. Smith. Make way for Max Headroom.

In the brave new world of computerized politics, a little-known Maryland congressional candidate has taken his campaign on the Internet with a state-of-the-art electronic brochure.

Supplementing shoe leather with silicon chips, 6th District Democratic hopeful Steve Crawford has set up an easy-to-use, interactive service to introduce himself to potential voters.

By simply pointing an arrow on a computer screen and clicking a button, potential constituents can learn all about Mr. Crawford -- from his personal history to his positions on crime and education.

But given the anarchic and border-free layout of the Internet -- and the fact that only a small fraction of the populace can access it -- skeptics wonder how many voters in Western Maryland's congressional district will ever find Mr. Crawford on-line.

Mr. Crawford, a 51-year-old university professor from Frederick, appears to be the first political candidate in Maryland and one of a handful in the country to venture into this kind of sophisticated cyber-campaigning.

But political and computer analysts say it is the wave of the future.

"It's very inventive," said Larry J. Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia. "One day it will be standard."

Five Libertarian Party candidates, including three in California, are already using interactive campaign pamphlets. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has his own informational brochure based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Even the White House, which already offers the texts of presidential remarks and press briefings on the Internet, plans to offer those same materials in a point-and-click format within the next six months. By the 1996 election, President Clinton is likely to have an on-line campaign of his own, White House spokesman Jeff Eller said.

"This is a natural evolution . . . ," said Mr. Eller. "As more opportunities present themselves to communicate [directly] with voters, I think you will see more candidates take advantage of it."

Mr. Crawford's electronic brochure, designed by a Columbia firm called NetWorX, first came on-line July 26 and is easy to use. It opens with a red, white and blue computerized bumper sticker that reads, "Crawford for Congress."

Move the arrow on the screen to a picture of Mr. Crawford, click a button, and the photo dissolves into a biography that emphasizes the moderate Democrat's populist roots. "Steve Crawford grew up on a farm, and worked summers in a factory and on a road crew," the brochure tells readers.

Click the arrow on the words "campaign finance reform," and the program explains how Mr. Crawford plans to restore faith in Congress.

While news of Mr. Crawford's program has fascinated observers in the computer and political worlds, some think it may be too far ahead of its time to help the first-time candidate in his uphill race for Congress.

Mr. Crawford, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland College Park, is in a crowded field of seven Democrats vying to take on incumbent Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett this fall.

The key to his success on the Internet lies in Mr. Crawford's ability to find the people eligible to vote for him. Given the vast scope and relative chaos of the Internet, that won't be easy.

The Internet is a global network of networks that spans 130 countries and has little geographical organization. A person in Los Angeles may be just as likely to find Mr. Crawford as a Democratic voter in Cumberland.

To complicate matters, the program is on the World Wide Web, an Internet network that allows a programmer to put an integrated package with pictures, text, sound and video on-line.

While the World Wide Web is easy to use, it is also relatively new and on the cutting edge of technology. Consequently, only a small percentage of the Internet's estimated 15 million users have the software or know-how to access it.

Thomas Belford, vice-president at Craver, Mathews, Smith & Co., a media and fund-raising firm in Falls Church, Va., likens Mr. Crawford's venture to putting up a billboard and hoping the right people would drive by.

"I would be surprised if even a hundred people that it's relevant to will encounter it," said Paul Phillips, who runs the World Wide Web service for InterNIC Information Services in San Diego, which provides public information to Internet users.

Can Steve Crawford electrify western Maryland with his computerized message?

So far, the answer is no. As of late Wednesday night, only 36 people had looked at Mr. Crawford's brochure. Only seven were within an hour's drive of Frederick. The rest were primarily university students and professors from around the world, including one in Sweden and one in Japan.

One reason for the dearth of Marylanders is the structure of the Internet. NetWorX has publicized Mr. Crawford's campaign on several "newsgroups," or discussion groups with worldwide readership.

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