A Doleful Mission

Two guys from Tempe aim to force virtual vigor into Bob Dole's official Web page

How do you breathe life into a more or less inanimate object? Throughout the ages, that question has perplexed alchemists, philosophers and clerics. More recently, it has befuddled the Dole for President campaign. Let's face it: Whatever you think of the man's politics, character and experience, in an era where voters are wooed by imagery, sound bite and the blur of virtual charisma, Dole is a walking flatline.

Which is why you might never expect to hear the words "interactive" and "Bob Dole" uttered in the same breath. But here are two young guys from Tempe doing just that, with straight faces. As "Webmasters" of the official Dole for President Web page (www.dole96.com), Vince Salvato and Rob Kubasko, Arizona State University students who haven't yet earned undergraduate degrees, face the challenge of persuading the online portion of the electorate that Bob Dole is indeed an animated, "fun," multimedia kind of guy.

Explains Kubasko, the loquacious design-and-editorial half of the Web duo, "Knowing Bob Dole and all the images you think of when you think of Bob Dole, we wanted to make the Web site a lot of fun, very interactive, really open to people."

How did two politically inexperienced, albeit overachieving, 24-year-olds from Tempe land the official Dole campaign Web site? Salvato and Kubasko say they got the job a year ago, after bidding on the project against three other Web-design firms, and impressing Dole's PR guns with a demo version of the page assembled over a weekend. It also helped that their curriculum vitae included developing other political and civic Web pages, among them Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano's home page (www.giuliano.org); the official Super Bowl XXX Host Committee Web site (aspin2.asu.edu/azsuperbowl); and ASU's Web pages (www.asu.edu/asuweb).

According to Andrew Weinstein, the Dole campaign's press liaison, Dole '96 has funneled about $40,000 into the Web site since it went online last year. Apparently, the expense has paid off; Weinstein says the site gets a million hits a week, at least one of the virtual visitors in the past year being Dole himself. "Yes, he's seen the site," says Weinstein, "and he had a great time looking through it."

It doesn't seem to matter to Dole's campaign handlers that neither Salvato, who handles the programming, nor Kubasko has ever voted for Dole. In fact, though both are clean-cut and crisply attired in young-Republican resort wear, neither has recently voted GOP. Salvato is happy to report that a few weeks ago he registered to vote (online, of course, as a Republican) for the first time ever.

Adds Kubasko, an Independent who went with Perot in '92, "This time around, we'll go with the man."

Apparently, hard-line party affiliation is less important than sprucing up Dole's electronic image as a with-it guy who knows his way around the Internet. Weinstein doesn't pass up the opportunity to point out that Dole's page is more interactive than any other politician's Web page.

The Dole site is much more visual and, well, gimmick-laden than most other political Web pages, including Bill Clinton's stodgy White House Web page, which seems dedicated to doing the exact opposite of what the Dole campaign is attempting on its page: that is, reassuring voters that the sax-blowing, chick-prowling, doobie-toking Clinton is actually statesmanlike, very reliable and comfortably dull.

That's not to say that there's not plenty of old-world politicking on Dole's home page; the former senator's spin docs keep electro-Dole brimming with the requisite position papers, speech transcripts, economic plan verbiage, press releases and eye-moistening soldier pictures.

Mostly, though, visiting Dole's page is a palpable experience in nouvelle politique. For instance, Dole's site boasts a feature called "Make a Poster," which allows Dole junkies to mix and match an assortment of backgrounds (White House or U.S. flag, for example) with a variety of foreground images (Bob smiling, Bob smiling from a slightly different angle, Bob and wife Elizabeth smiling from the same angle). When you click on a button, you get to see your customized poster, with your name on it, as in "[Your name here] Supports Bob Dole for President."

The Dole Trivia Quiz ("Test Your Knowledge of Bob Dole's Life") is democratic to a fault, with fail-proof questions that give even the slowest Dole supporter a chance to feel like a winner. The About Bob Dole photo album compiles dozens of interesting pictures (no daguerreotypes) of Bob as a child, soldier, young politician and confidant of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. (Interestingly, Bob's other presidential bud, Richard Nixon, is missing from the album.)

Recent improvements on the site allow you to customize your Dole-interface experience by choosing a list of hot topics that concern you (crime, missile defense, etc.) and prompting some hidden technology to address you personally.

Despite all the action in Dole's fun salon, tooling around the site you get the feeling that the Webmasters--and the Dole campaign--are trying less to work with Bob than to work around Bob. Which might explain the prominence of the Dole family dog, "Leader," on the Web page. Leader's picture appears almost as much as Bob's does. As the old Hollywood saw goes, never co-star with kids or pets, unless, of course, you really, really need a comeback.

John Whalen is editor of newtimes.com, New Times' online service, where this story first appeared. (http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com)

 
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