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A Look at the Net Results of Presidential Hopefuls

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a guy who supposedly invented the Internet, it sure took Al Gore a long time to come up with a decent Web site.

Along with their nominating convention, the Democrats on Monday launched the general election version of the vice president’s campaign site, https://www.algore2000.com. Until then, the Gore-Lieberman 2000 site--with its bland layout, dark photos, poor organization and dearth of multimedia features--harken back to 1996, the last time Gore ran for office. The new site emphasizes electronic mail, instant messaging and links to state and issue-oriented groups to connect with Web surfers and turn them into campaign volunteers.

But it’s still not quite as slick as https://www.georgewbush.com, the official online home of Gore’s Republican presidential opponent. Its bold colors, snazzy graphics and crisp design project an image of George W. Bush as the latest cool product from Silicon Valley, along with Apple’s Power Mac G4 Cube or Handspring’s jewel-colored Visor personal digital assistants. Interactive features such as the GwB Television Network and the GwB Tax Calculator can suck in even the most liberal of Democrats.

Both sites rely on basic links to text documents--such as issue statements, speeches and biographies--for the bulk of their content, and both include a smattering of photos and streaming video presentations. Gore’s site has a pop quiz for kids, but Bush’s daily trivia questions show more personality. (Sample: “After which former shortstop for the Texas Rangers did George W. Bush name his dog Spot?”) Both sites can be viewed in Spanish. They also link to online stores where supporters can buy campaign buttons, bumper stickers and T-shirts.

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Hopefully, voters will select the next president based on the candidates’ policies, not their Web sites. But if the influence of TV commercials is any guide, a flashy site may someday swing an election.

Gore had better hope that “someday” isn’t Nov. 7, 2000.

Clearly there is Web design talent in the Democratic Party. For instance, I Know What You Did in Texas, at https://www.iknowwhatyoudidintexas.com, is an artful spoof of W’s record as governor portrayed in the style of a Gen Y horror flick. The Democratic National Committee’s site, at https://www.democrats.org, poses the intriguing question of whether George W. and actor Rick Schroeder, who played a spoiled youth on TV’s “Silver Spoons” and now portrays a detective on “NYPD Blue,” were actually separated at birth.

Gore’s straight-arrow site lacks the same sense of humor and personality. It comes closest with its “Bush Debate Duck,” which measures how long Bush has managed to avoid a one-on-one with Gore. But it is almost buried at the bottom of the home page.

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The Gore-Lieberman site has America Online-style icons that link to interactive tasks such as registering to vote and signing up to volunteer. A menu at the top of the site allows visitors to jump directly to Gore’s position on about 30 issues from agriculture to veterans.

Communication Features

Beyond simple text, Gore’s site tries to showcase the sort of cutting-edge technology he speaks of so passionately. The site is replete with ways for visitors to communicate with like-minded voters, paste digital Gore logos on their computer desktops, and download daily news updates to their personal digital assistants. There’s even a tool to let supporters build their own pro-Gore Web sites and then send a slew of e-mails inviting others to come and take a look.

But sometimes the site fails to live up to its potential. The photo gallery, for instance, forces viewers to select pictures to view on the basis of such descriptive titles as “03.12.00 Al Gore arrives in Dallas.” (The most recent photos are from March.) Only three campaign Webcasts are archived on the site, and they can only be viewed with Microsoft’s Windows Media Player, not RealNetworks’ RealPlayer. When I tried to watch them, they couldn’t be viewed at all--instead of launching the player, all I got was a screen full of gobbledygook.

The Bush-Cheney Web site doesn’t aim as high on the technology front, but it does a better job of achieving its goals. What’s more, Georgewbush.com is an incredibly engaging site. On the far right (no pun intended) is an icon for GwB TV, featuring W’s face in a television screen. GwB TV has three channels: On The Issues (which is actually an archive of Bush’s TV commercials), Supporters Speak Out, and Speeches.

Multimedia

The site supports both RealPlayer and Windows Media Player, and it walks visitors through the easy set-up process. Video from the campaign trail is a little fuzzy, but the commercials are smooth. Some of the “shows,” such as an interview with Texas First Lady Laura Bush, are audio only.

GwB TV isn’t entirely glitch-free. One commercial I requested could not be found because of an “internal server error,” and another crashed when I tried to fast-forward. But those problems were outweighed by the elegant way the video window was integrated into the site instead of displayed in its own window, full of distracting and annoying ads.

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The GwB Tax Calculator is another clever interactive application. Unfortunately, the calculator doesn’t allow users to do too much customization, so it’s hard to tell how much money one would actually save under Bush’s tax plan.

The Bush site is more subtle and skillful in recruiting volunteers. Like the Gore site, Georgewbush.com displays a prominent window where visitors can sign up to receive e-mail updates about the campaign. The site also uses the trivia question and a contest to name W’s campaign plane to recruit online supporters by requiring them to submit their e-mail addresses and other information in order to participate. (Even after inputting their personal data, visitors still must opt in to be included on Bush’s mailing lists. E-commerce sites that profess to care about protecting their customers’ privacy would do well to follow this lead.)

The crisp layout of Bush’s site makes it quite easy to navigate, and visitors can streamline it even further by using the myGeorgeW customizing tool. Users sign up by selecting the issues that interest them most, and are rewarded with a page that pulls together all the relevant material from throughout the site. It’s quite a time-saver, but it isn’t perfect. In a few cases, I got responses like “Sorry, we found nothing for Internet and eCommerce” instead of a listing of speeches and news releases.

Online Shopping

The site’s online store is independently operated and offers logo-emblazened mouse pads, golf balls and baby bibs. I had no trouble purchasing half a case of GwB bottled water for $18.

My experience shopping for Gore paraphernalia was considerably less smooth. It took several attempts to buy a dozen Gore Trading Cards on GoreGear, the biggest of the three stores linked to the vice president’s site. The cards were initially listed at $8.99, but when I tried to add them to my cart I was confronted with another “internal server error.” When my cart finally came to life, the price for the cards had mysteriously dropped to $7 and I had two sets of them. After removing one set of cards, I checked out just fine.

I also ran into a snag using my credit card to contribute to Gore’s campaign. I typed in "$5.00,” hit the “submit form” button, and got a box asking me to “Please enter a contribution amount.” OK, so five bucks isn’t a fortune, but it’s better than nothing, right? I tried again, this time typing "$5" and it seemed to go through.

(The Bush campaign is no longer accepting contributions on its Web site now that it is accepting federal funds.)

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In the first presidential election of the 21st century, both sites can be useful for voters who need help making up their minds. But if you really want to learn about the candidates, my advice is simple: read a newspaper.

*

Times staff writer Karen Kaplan can be reached at

karen.kaplan@latimes.com.

To read past E-Review columns, go to

https://www.latimes.com/business/columns/ereview.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Candidate Web Sites

If the presidential election were based on Internet sites, E-Review would give the edge to Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

GORE BUSH

Video presentations and Webcasts

Information on issues

Links to interest groups

Online store

Volunteer recruitment


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