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

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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."

Her dad, Cushman reminded, is a college professor, "and he just loves the Socratic method." She leaned in and touched my arm. "I used to tell my friends when they came over, 'He's going to ask you fifty questions ...'"

Then there's Herman Cain. His campaign had an epically bad start online. At launch, his campaign site was full of typos, dead links, and videos that you could only watch if you had a secret password. One pop-up box warned visitors that photos they submitted to the site could be used at the campaign's "disgretion." Since then, he's tried to make up lost ground. He's rolling out a social networking platform, and went on Facebook last week to ask what to call it. Suggestions included Freedom.HermanCain.com and IAm.HermanCain.com. During last night's debate, Cain hosted a "Live tweet up/chat." The chat was basically a comment thread, but it pulled in several hundred comments. It wasn't perfect. "This page needs to auto refresh," wrote one commenter, and indeed it needed to. The Cain campaign generally needs to work out some online kinks. Example: @THEHermanCain tweeted out in the first-person while the actual Herman Cain was up on stage, debating.

Still, Cain was doing considerably better than Gary Johnson. Johnson wasn't up on stage at all. The former two-term governor of New Mexico had in recent days been using Twitter to rally people against his exclusion. His campaign put together a video called "Tell CNN" that prodded potential allies with the tagline, "Don't let the media elite make your choice for you." Standing outside the debate hall in the proscribed free-speech zone, Johnson supporters held signs such as "Hey CNN, More Johnson, Less Weiner" and "GaryJohnsonGrassroots.com." Nick Murray, a University of New Hampshire student, told me that he finds it appalling that Johnson didn't get an invitation. At this point, said Murray, polls are little more than name recognition contests. But there's hope. "Republicans have been late to the Internet," said Murray. "But Gary is all over that." But Republicans aren't so all over Gary. The highest observed participation rate on the Gary Johnson Grassroots site during the debate was a total of five concurrent users. Johnson announced on Twitter during the debate that he stood ready to answer questions.

It's too early to say how successful any of the Republican contenders ultimately will be online. Some of the bigger-name campaigns aren't talking. "I'm not interested in revealing our online strategy," Pawlenty campaign manager Nick Ayers said in the spin room. "But we've got a good one." And it's no great triumph of either cynicism or analysis to point out that the conventions of running for president of the United States are staged to look like what running for president should look like. But this isn't Greece. It's not even France. This is a country of 300 million people, and we've got the tools to connect more of those people to the men and women running for president, even when the candidates themselves are up on stage at St. Anselm or ordering a grilled cheese at the Red Arrow.

You don't need to tell that to Mitt Romney. The Republican front-runner checked into Foursquare just before the debate started. Just in case you were looking for him last night.

Image credit: Jim Cole/AP

Drop-down image credit: AP

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Nancy Scola is an Atlantic correspondent based in New York City, whose work focuses on the intersections of politics and technology. She has written for Capital New York, Columbia Journalism Review, GOOD, New York, Reuters, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect. More

Previously, Scola was an aide on the U.S. House of Representative's Oversight and Government Reform Committee, a tech-policy staffer for a short-lived presidential campaign, and a nonprofit research designer in Washington, D.C.

For three years, she wrote and edited techPresident, a popular daily blog and email newsletter produced by the Personal Democracy Forum. While at techPresident, she co-created and helped to lead Vote Report '08, an early use of mobile technologies to conduct election monitoring.

Her passions include women's soccer, New York City history, cheese, copyright law, the genius of Lauryn Hill, New York State politics, long-form non-fiction, amateur radio, sharks and bears, political boundaries, magazines, maritime culture and waterfronts, how institutions work, typography, the African continent, and public parks.

Scola has two degrees in anthropology, was born in northern New Jersey, and, after about a decade in the nation's capital, now lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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