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National News

Published Monday, June 7, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News

Online race for political domains

Bush outpaces Gore in snapping up sites

Mercury News Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore might have helped create the Internet (or so he boasted), but he's fallen behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush in staking out new territory in the presidential campaign Wild West that is cyberspace.

When Bush's candidacy for president was still a Republican dream, his political consultant locked up dozens of Internet domain names last year. He staked claims to valuable -- and in the wrong hands, dangerous -- Internet territory, buying everything from georgewbush.com to dubya.net (for Bush's middle-initial-derived nickname), even grabbing four that incorporated names of possible running mates.

In contrast, the purportedly techno-savvy Gore campaign, as have most other contenders, left many of their possible domain names up for grabs for the meager price of about $70. That's all it costs for anyone to register an unreserved name with InterNIC, the domain name registry.

Internet entrepreneurs, and some foes of the vice president, eagerly snapped up many of the sites. Already taken are gorebites.com,
gorefeinstein.com (Sen. Dianne Feinstein is often mentioned as a potential Gore running mate) and gore2000.com. Republican candidate Steve Forbes paid $6,500 earlier this year to buy forbes2000.com from two Arizona graduate students who registered the site in hopes of making money. And the owner of gore2000.com, whose company sells political memorabilia, is holding out for a six-figure ransom for the rights to that name and three related ones she registered.

Giving enemies publicity

To Gore's credit, his campaign hasn't made the mistake of calling attention to its online detractors. Bush, however, has tried to stamp out one of the few domain possibilities the campaign hasn't locked up, gwbush.com, which hosts a parody of his official site full of negative info and innuendo (www.gwbush.com).

But when Bush filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission, the publicity only heightened interest in the site, which received millions of visits in recent weeks. The Gore campaign has ignored a similar parody site, www.allgore.com, allowing it to continue to wallow in Internet obscurity.

It's all part of the learning curve for presidential candidates venturing into cyberspace, said Michael Cornfield, a professor at George Washington University who is studying online politics.

``Everybody's learning from the Bush campaign,'' he said.

Cornfield said Bush made smart moves in locking up as many domain names as possible. That move technically wasn't made by the Bush presidential exploratory committee, but by a political consultant working for Bush's gubernatorial campaign last year.

Net speculators

Karl Rove, an Austin-based consultant, had read about so-called ``cybersquatters'' buying domain names in hopes of selling them later for a high price.

``I said, `Heck, why don't I become one, too,' and the difference is I'll sell them to the campaign for what I paid,'' Rove said. He pursued a near-miss strategy: looking for every possible name a Web surfer might type in when looking for Bush's site.

The move prevented speculators from grabbing the names first. And there are plenty of speculators in cyberspace.

Chris Hayden and his brother, Jerry, of Costa Mesa, for example, took a flier last year on hillary2000.com, hillaryclinton2000.com and clinton2000.com on the off-chance that Hillary Rodham Clinton would seek public office.

``We reserved those names . . . in the hopes that we would make money. We're capitalists,'' said Chris Hayden, who works as an environmental site assessor. So far, they've had no contact from the White House. But their prospects are looking up as Clinton moves closer to running for the Senate from New York.

Alex Goldstein was even more farsighted. He's registered about 65 domain names, mostly for the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, including versions with the names of Bush, Forbes and Newt Gingrich. If Bush wins in 2000, Goldstein figures his control of bush2004.com, bush2004.org and bush2004.net will be extremely valuable -- either to Bush or to Democrats looking to unseat him.

Goldstein, who works in Internet marketing in Los Angeles, said he's had offers in the ``four figures'' from some campaign representatives, whom he declined to name. But he said that right now the mid-five figures is a ``reasonable sum,'' with his price tag only climbing in coming years.

``Considering how little the cost to register these domains, it was actually a bit depressing because it was saying the politicians are so out of touch with what's going on in the world that they wouldn't spend a little bit of money to dominate this medium,'' Goldstein said.

A natural for Gore's campaign Web site would have been gore2000.com. But that name -- along with algore.com, gore-2000.com and al-gore.com -- was taken more than two years ago by Market Vision, a Kansas City, Mo., company owned by Sharon Clemons. Clemons hadn't expected them to be available.

Asking for big bucks

``It's surprising because Al Gore is such an Internet-savvy person,'' said Clemons, a Gore supporter. The sites have been up since 1997 selling Gore buttons, bumper stickers and ``GoreMay Coffee.'' Clemons offered to give the names to the Gore campaign if they would allow her company to be the official purveyor of campaign goods on the site, but she said that was turned down.

She then asked for ``six figures'' for the four names, a price she said takes into account the value not only of the domain names themselves, but of the business they'll generate next year for her memorabilia. She was turned down. She said she's been offered five-figure prices from other people for the sites.

Gore campaign officials felt Clemons' asking price was outrageous. Campaign representative Roger Salazar said the campaign is happy with its current domain name, algore2000.com.

The Gore campaign and its Web designer, US Web, have registered a handful of related names, including goreforpresident.org and goresucks.com.

But Gore hasn't been as aggressive about compiling names as Bush. Along with the logical ones, Rove decided to try to lock up as many negative sites as possible, with all the alternate spellings. So they registered not only bushsucks.net but georgebushsucks.org and bushsux.org.

``It seemed to be an inexpensive way of preventing somebody else from getting them,'' said Rove, who is now a strategist with Bush's exploratory committee.

The Bush campaign also has made another unique move: linking those addresses to its main Web page. So somebody who types in www.bushblows.net, for example, goes directly to the official Bush Web site.

``That's very clever,'' Cornfield said. But Bush's campaign made a gaffe, he said, when it registered domains with potential running mates, angering some conservatives who noted three of the four support abortion rights. Rove said those domains were registered by a member of his staff without his knowledge.

The Bush camp also slipped when it missed registering gwbush.com. When Boston computer consultant Zack Exley put up a site at www.gwbush.com with negative information about Bush, the campaign fired back.

`Limits to freedom'

Saying ``there ought to be limits to freedom,'' Bush filed a complaint with the FEC against Exley.

``There's a lot of garbage in politics, and, obviously, this is a garbage man,'' Bush said earlier this month. The resulting media attention led to more than millions of page views in May for the site, outpacing Bush's own official site.

``We were hardly getting any visitors at all'' before the controversy, said Exley, who offered to sell the domain name, along with gwbush.org and gbush.org, to the campaign for $350,000. ``It's not for sale now. I never thought I would have the chance to do a meaningful site that had a big audience.''

The Bush response to Exley was a major misstep, according to experts.

``He made a big mistake, but I don't think he'll do it again,'' said Gary Selnow, a San Francisco State University communications professor who has written a book on the Internet and politics. ``And I don't think others will.''

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