From Spin Room to Web Spin Wars, the GOP Debate Moves Off Stage

New Hampshire voters are just one of the many groups the GOP presidential candidates were targeting last night

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MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Every four years, St. Anselm College, nestled like a leafier Georgetown University in Goffstown, N.H., just outside Manchester proper, becomes a magnet for candidates. Campaigns use the school as a backdrop to give speeches and, like they did last night, debate. The news media uses the school and the surrounding city as a launching pad for coverage of the New Hampshire primary. But it's not as if the locals aren't in on the game. "The Red Arrow Diner was full of journalists looking for locals," tweeted ABC News' Josh Wolf yesterday afternoon. "The locals were in hiding." The famed Lowell Street greasy spoon is, for its part, the sort of place where the fifth counter seat from the door is marked with a plaque reading, "John Edwards sat here."

Nearly everyone involved in the process is interested in breaking out of that bubble, at least now and again. The Atlantic's Josh Green reported on how debate host CNN promised that last night's debate would be shot through with social media features. But that aspect of the debate was a failure. Moderator John King barely bothered with what was coming in over Twitter and Facebook. "A lot of good questions," he said at one point, drawing attention to the board displaying the social media streams. This was said in the manner that someone not particularly interested in infants might say, "Look at the cute baby."

For their part, the candidates featured in last night's debate tried breaking out of their immediate New England surroundings using the power of the Internet -- extending their reach while still maintaining the intimacy of New Hampshire's retail politics. That was especially true for candidates on the fringes of the field.

"Didn't we do good?!" exclaimed Michele Bachmann's brand-new press secretary Alice Stewart in the spin room, post-debate. She did a little dance. As well she should have -- military invasions have frequently been planned with less precision. As soon as the Minnesota representative let on during the debate that she'd finally formally filed papers to run for president, a tweet went out from her account with the news. A new avatar was already in place. Out went the old glamor shot. In its place, up went a tiny picture that looked to be Bachmann airbrushed over an American flag. Emails were sent. A video was posted. Web ads went live, on Drudge and elsewhere. Down came her congressional campaign website and up went a presidential one. During the remainder of the debate, Team Bachmann tweeted out links, summaries, and other bites that coincided with points being made by their candidate live on air.

For Bachmann, says Stewart, online is a way for her to extend her argument. But it's not a way for her to organize her grassroots, a la the Obama campaign last time around. "She's always asking, 'How many followers? How many followers?'" said Stewart of Bachmann. But as for using the Internet to build an organization, not so much. Said Stewart, "That's not how we're going about it."

I walked across the spin room to Jackie Cushman and told her what Bachmann's press secretary had said. Cushman happens to be Newt Gingrich's daughter, and was representing him in the wake of the resignation of 16 of his campaign staffers. The Gingrich operation plans to do grassroots organizing online. "Oh yes, very much so," said Cushman. As the debate kicked off, Gingrich tweeted instructions for people to follow Cushman and two staffers for live updates during the debate. A cynical sort might see in that a gentle reminder that Gingrich still has people working for his campaign, though, for what it's worth, Gingrich intimated when his staff quit that the Internet would let him run a leaner campaign. But Cushman says that the give-and-take of Twitter is just Newt being Newt, as is his online "debate hub," which collected questions for the former speaker of the House to answer after he finished answering CNN's. "A two-hour debate," read the note on Newt.org, "is nowhere near long enough to discuss all the challenges we face and the right policies for winning the future."

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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