Bush campaign busy buying up Net real estate

Internet: Strategist for GOP front-runner is hoping to head off another wicked parody.

August 19, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Call it a pre-emptive strike by George W. Bush against his enemies-in-waiting on the Internet.

Burned once by a Web site address that fell into the wrong hands, the Bush campaign has been snapping up real estate on the World Wide Web -- some with off-color addresses -- before the Texas governor's political opponents can get to it first.

From the benign GovGeorgeWBush.com to the vulgar BushBites.net, campaign strategist Karl Rove has been buying addresses at $75 a pop, hoping to head off another wicked parody page such as the one at GWBush.com.

More than 60 Web addresses have been registered to Rove, and as many as 200 others are being reserved by independent Bush supporters wary of the Web. The more profane addresses link directly to Bush's official Web site, treating Web surfers to the news that the campaign staff wants disseminated.

It might surprise the average dirt-searching Internet denizen to find Bush's Iowa straw-poll victory speech on the Web site Georgebushsucks.net, or the effusive endorsements of the governors of Tennessee and Michigan at Bushblows.com. But that is the point, campaign officials say.

"It was really a strategic decision," said Scott McClellan, spokesman for the Bush campaign. "We wanted to make sure Web users were directed to the official site."

As political use of the Internet explodes, campaign strategists are scrambling to determine how to harness the new medium for their own good -- and to shut down or minimize the damage such a wide-open arena can cause.

Presidential campaigns are using the Internet as never before -- to organize supporters, to bypass the news media with official information and to raise money.

Roger Salazar, a spokesman for Vice President Al Gore's campaign, said aides reach 20,000 people twice a week with e-mail updates, the kind of personal connections that campaigns could have only dreamed of four years ago.

Gore's opponent for the Democratic nomination, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, has raised $330,000 through the Web, said campaign spokesman Eric Hauser.

The future is now

"It's not the future: It's here now. It continues to grow by leaps and bounds every day," said Tom Hockaday, president of the Internet political consulting firm Hockaday Donatelli Campaign Solutions.

But there is a flip side:

Internet tricksters have any number of ways to zing the politicians they love to loathe. Click on AlbertGore.com and a diatribe against the vice president appears. Leave the computer on the site a few minutes and it leaps to the Bradley campaign's official site.

Hauser said the Bradley campaign had nothing to do with the site and had sent a letter to its owner yesterday demanding an explanation.

But, he added, "What can be done these days?"

A new breed of Internet political consultants is helping politicians answer that question. They help set up informational Web pages, raise money and organize campaigns electronically. They also advise clients to buy Web addresses similar to their official sites, either to ensure browsers find what they are looking for or to head off nefarious schemes.

For instance, when Hockaday Donatelli helped New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani launch his HillaryNo.com slam on first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, it also snapped up RudyNo.org, RudyNo.Net and NoGiuliani.com, as well as HillaryYes.com.

New heights

The Bush campaign is raising the practice to a new level, Hockaday said.

"We've done that for our clients, recommended they get some of the domain names that are potentially negative, but I've never seen something like 60 sites," he said, marveling.

But the Bush campaign saw good reason. Zack Exley of Somerville, Mass., had opened a blistering parody page, GWBush.com, using the campaign's graphics to produce a Web site that looked strikingly authentic, if wickedly punishing.

Bush aides lunged, first with a cease-and-desist order, then in a suit filed with the Federal Election Commission, hoping to force Exley to disclose who he is and who might be supporting him.

Yet the Web site is still going strong.

Indeed, the Bush assault may have backfired. The publicity Exley received has forced an obscure corner of the Web into the spotlight, and spawned a backlash among famously free-thinking Internet aficionados.

"It's made the Web site," Exley said, gloating. "It wouldn't exist if he hadn't drawn all the attention to it."

Fearing copycats, Rove began shopping the Net, buying up not only nasty names, but friendly ones, too: names that could lure potential supporters to a Web page calculated to turn voters away from the GOP front-runner. Rove owns Texasgovernor.org, Dubya.net and LauraBush.net, using the name of Bush's wife.

Other Rove names open a window to Bush's possible running mate. There's BushEngler.com, inspired by Michigan Gov. John Engler; BushWhitman.net, after New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman; and BushRidge.org, a reference to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.

"Always planning ahead," McClellan said.

Past the blockade

But some industrious "netizens" have managed to scramble around the Bush blockade. The owner of Bushsuckz.com begins his home-page screed with a blast against the "misguided and sophomoric attempt to head off any possible slurs of Bush."

Such sites are inevitable, Hockaday warned. No matter how sly a campaign consultant is, there is no way to buy up every possible negative address name.

Witness his consulting firm's own blunder:

The Giuliani campaign snapped up RudyNo.org but left RudyNo.com to the mayor's opponents, who grabbed it. On the resulting page, the top reason not to elect Giuliani to the Senate reads: "He opened HillaryNo.com but failed to register RudyNo.com."

"If somebody wants to put up a negative site, they will figure out a way to do it," Hockaday said with a sigh. Bush campaign officials "have 60. I imagine if we're clever enough, we could come up with another hundred."

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