CANDIDATES in this year's US presidential elections are finding that the campaign trail has merged with the World Wide Web, as politicians use the Internet to vie for "wired" Americans' hearts, minds and money.
Their offerings include news releases, texts of speeches, copies of news stories, position papers, biographies, video and audio clips, and ways for volunteers to sign up and the ability to e mail a campaign directly.
The Republicans' Bob Dole has what is regarded as one of the strongest Web sites (at http://www.dole96.com). It allows visitors to click on a US map to find out which officials in a state support the Kansas senator. They can also make custom designed campaign posters and mail e postcards to friends touting Dole.
The Web is also a relatively low cost way to reach voters. Dole's site, up since last September, cost $15,000 to create and about $ 1,200 a month to maintain - much less than the cost of TV commercials or print ads. Pat Buchanan got an even better deal: volunteers created and maintain his Web pages (at http://www.buchanan.org).
For the Republican National Committee in Washington (http:/Avww. rnc. org), officials regard the Net as "very cost effective" because it can mail out 3,000 or 10,000 pieces of e mail to interested voters without any printing or postage costs.
Noticeably absent from the Web's campaign trail is President Clinton, although a campaign Web site is expected soon. Because taxpayer and campaign money and expenditures have to be kept separate, his White House site (at http://www. whitehouse.gov) cannot function as an official campaign outlet. So a separate campaign Web site is in the pipeline, say officials at the Democratic National Committee (http://www.dernocrats.org).
But besides the serious sites there are spoof ones for Clinton (for example, at http://www.clinton96.org), Buchanan (at http://www.buchanan96.org), and Dole (http://www. dole96.org). One spoof site says that Dole founded the Dole Fruit Co (he didn't) and calls him "the ripe man for the job".
However, though North Americans are to the forefront of Internet users, some analysts say the Net is not yet a major factor in US politics.
Right now, I think you'd have says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington. "Everyone is jumping into it because everybody else is jumping into it and you don't want to be left behind."
"I don't think it makes much difference yet," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, another Washington think tank. "Internet junkies are talking back and forth to each other and having a lot of fun at it, but I wouldn't put their numbers that high up." Both agree, however, that the Internet is a useful research tool for students, journalists and others.
Meanwhile the major media organisations have followed the candidates into cyberspace. Among the best are:
. All Politics
(http://allpolltics.com), a highly interactive Web site produced by CNN and Time magazine. It has sophisticated search engines, and users can download movie clips from previous campaigns (warning: they are very large);
(http://www.electionline.com), a slightly more sober affair created by ABC News, the Washington Post and Newsweek magazine;
. Point Politics (http://pointcom.com/politics) - a useful starting point, because it is a guide to the guides, with links to many of them.