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Campaign Internet Strategists Clash At Web Conference

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Monday when Mark Soohoo, the Republican Internet strategist for John McCain defended his candidate's legitimacy as someone with a deep understanding of how technology can revolutionize government during the PDF '08 conference, Tracy Russo, formerly of the Edwards campaign, let loose her thoughts, drawing on a post she wrote for techPresident on Mccain's admission that he doesn't use a computer and gets some of what he knows of digital life from interaction with his kids. That's "not enough," Russo said.

SOOHOO: I think it's a mistake to assume that John McCain has no knowledge of this. I mean, this is a man who has served in the United States senate, has been, you know, on a number of committees that are--

RUSSO: He has said he doesn't use a computer, I mean, I wasn't making that up.

SOOHOO: Yeah, yeah, but you don't necessarily have to use a computer to understand how it shapes the country and I think he has a--

RUSSO: But no that's the point , you do. Like, that's exactly the point.

SOOHOO: I think that--

(Audience clapping)

RUSSO: You can't just say you're a maverick and a straight talker, because it's the frame of reference that comes from being engaged and using the technology and tools that are moving our entire world forward...

SOOHOO: I mean that's not lost on Senator McCain. He knows the internet exists...

(Audience laughter and clapping)

(...)

RUSSO: I would try explaining email, Facebook, Twitter, Google... massive social movements to your grandmother and then ask them to apply that to governing and see if that would work for you...

The panel discussion was thus briefly elevated to heated debate, Russo drawing applause from the crowd but also, on the YouTube replay, what seems like disapproval for linking McCain to the word grandmother. Soohoo let the thread die there, helped along by PDF cofounders Andrew Raseij and Micah Sifry. Russo defended her remarks by saying "it's not necessarily partisan. It's about the technology."

Most of the panel flowed amicably, however, the campaign reps agreeing on several basic points, like how important it was for the campaign Internet directors to have a seat at the table. Predictably the panelists all emphasized the connectedness of their organizations, particularly Peter Daou of the Clinton campaign. But, drilled down, the split panel (three men, three women; three Republicans, three Democrats) drew lines with their respective parties on "the message aligning with their type of marketing," as Mindy Finn of Mitt Romney's campaign remarked.

"It's a different kind of audience," Soohoo said, referring to Republicans. And although Joe Rospars of the Obama campaign joked that he could take credit for "all of the shortcomings" of the Internet strategy for Obama, it was clear he was the star in the room, given the widespread view that the Obama campaign's online organization represents a new kind of success.

Shifting the topic slightly, Esther Dyson asked a more revealing question (via the live question tool) about how either of the two nominees' camps would utilize online technology, specifically social networking tools, once in office. Soohoo responded quickly, explaining that John McCain participates in conference calls with bloggers. Justine Lam of Ron Paul's campaign, took a kind of libertarian approach, saying "it's up to [citizens] to create these technical tools like wikis." Rospars, on point, suggested that social networking was just one more medium with the ability to meaningfully expand transparency.

Oh, yeah, that.