It doesn't take an expensive poll or an exhaustive round of phone calls for Joe DiGiacinto to check the mood of the Maryland electorate. All he has to do is switch on his computer.
Every few hours, between other chores, the office manager at Ellen R. Sauerbrey's campaign sits down at the keyboard in his cubbyhole. He quickly sorts through the latest batch of e-mail messages -- compliments and criticisms, policy questions and personal gripes, requests for lawn signs and for help with school projects.
"I'm not especially computer savvy," DiGiacinto, 63, acknowledges with a smile, "but this is the way a lot of people get in touch with the campaign."
This is elective politics in the electronic age. In Maryland and across the country, federal, state and local candidates are putting up billboards on the information highway. Most of the major contestants for governor, U.S. Senate and Congress, and numerous local office-seekers, have e-mail addresses and World Wide Web sites.
The 1998 elections mark the first time that cyber-campaigning has become commonplace. Two years ago, the presidential race set chat rooms abuzz, and some intrepid politicians experimented online as early as 1994. But far more were like those in Maryland, none of whom tried the emerging digital democracy in that year's election.
Today, with more wired households in America, candidates increasingly see the Internet as an inexpensive, efficient and unfiltered medium for their message. By setting up a Web page, which costs about $70 for the domain, they can enlist volunteers, raise campaign funds and publish unlimited, self-promoting texts and position papers.
Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening recruits many of his campaign volunteers online. Sauerbrey, his Republican opponent, sells campaign T-shirts and solicits donations through the Internet. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat, lists her accomplishments county by county with an interactive electronic map of Maryland. Republican Robert B. Ostrom features a "photo of the week" of the man he hopes to unseat, Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland.
Still, political consultants and Web-page designers agree that the Internet revolution has yet to transform politics the way television did.
Only a third of the nation's voting-age population has access to the Net -- compared to 86 percent of households that had television sets in 1960, says Lynn Reed, a Washington Web consultant who designed Mikulski's site. Few candidates appear willing to spend the time or money on more than a basic home page.
"We're not quite there yet," Reed says.
Ronald Faucheux, publisher of Campaigns and Elections, a national industry magazine, agrees. "No one is making it a first priority. And they shouldn't, because it's still in its infancy. What's happened is it's become one part of the medium mix, but it's receiving a very low percentage of the dollar allocation."
His publication surveyed 270 candidates across the country this summer and found 63 percent had a Web page, while another 21 percent intended to create one in the near future. Only a third of those polled, however, had tried a mass e-mailing to voters, and fewer than 20 percent expected to spend more than $2,000 on their Internet efforts.
In Maryland, where politics is often so local that it's focused on votes next door, some candidates believe folksy gestures matter more than slick Web sites. State office-seekers continue to crowd picnics and parades, and more than a few stand on corners to wave at rush-hour traffic.
'Don't see any need for it'
Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the 76-year-old master of the "hello and handshake," is one of those skipping the Internet. Back in public life again, running for state comptroller, he has eschewed electronic leafletting for red and white bumper stickers.
"We just didn't see any need for it," says Robert C. Douglas, Schaefer's former press secretary and spokesman for the campaign. "We're doing advertising through the radio, newspapers and some direct mailings, plus old-fashioned meeting and greeting."
Few Maryland candidates have ventured much beyond what experienced Web surfers call "brochureware," usually a resume, press releases and pages listing their positions. But others swear by the Internet as an important piece of their campaign strategy.
"It's one more tool," says state Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Republican who has a part-time Web HTC design business. "What's great is you can put up so much information. There's only so much you can say in a radio or TV ad. When you're talking to people at parades, and can't talk that long, you can say, 'Hey, check out my Web site.' "
Besides, he points out, the Net is a great equalizer. It's difficult to tell from a Web site whether it was put up by a career politician -- or an obscure first-time candidate.