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Published: Friday, 6/29/2007

Hey, YouTube

THE Internet has had a marked influence on political campaigning. Pity the wretched politician who doesn't have a Web site. But what was considered cutting-edge just last year can seem as old-fashioned as using a truck with loudspeakers to broadcast political messages to people on the street.

When popular culture meets new media technology, hang on to your straw hats and campaign buttons because anything can happen - and increasingly, for good or ill, it's happening on YouTube.com.

Former U.S. Sen. George Allen, a Republican from Virginia, was among the first to discover its power. Pundits considered his defense last year of his Senate seat a formality but he chanced to make an offhand, racially charged comment that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Instead, it was recorded on video and his "macaca" moment migrated to YouTube. Suddenly, Mr. Allen's once-credible shot at the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 evaporated and the voters rejected him at the polls.

Over in Montana, his equally hapless colleague, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, was also defeated after his rambling comments about immigrants and terrorism were uploaded to the video sharing site.

Suddenly, YouTube had become the La Brea Tar Pit of American politics. Neither Democrats nor Republicans wanted to be the subject of viral videos.

Then, just as abruptly, the site became a platform for more dubious hijinks. A supporter of Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) satirized Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.) by hijacking Apple's notorious "1984" ad to portray Ms. Clinton as Big Brother. The Clinton camp responded by flipping the script and casting Mr. Obama as George Orwell's villain. Ms. Clinton's campaign got points for its quick response, but not for originality.

Last week, another Obama supporter posted a video featuring a beautiful young woman singing about her affection for the Illinois senator. "I Got a Crush on Obama" features flirtatious dancing and innuendo.

When the Clintons' spoof of The Sopranos finale hit the Web this week, it was widely regarded as a viral masterpiece. It resonates, for better or worse, with people who aren't aware of the issues, but who are plugged into popular culture. It also humanizes Senator Clinton for those who prefer candidates with a sense of humor.

Not all political spots on YouTube are funny or provocative. Some, like the two that former Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) recently posted are simply weird. In one ad, the presidential long-shot stares into the camera for two minutes before turning to heave a rock into the river. In another, fire is superimposed over his image.

Though he doesn't have a prayer of living in the White House, Mr. Gravel might creep out America for years to come, thanks to the online cult that will celebrate his videos as political camp.

The danger, though, is that all of this will further displace serious political discourse. The Lincoln-Douglas debates weren't as sexy as the Obama Girl's video a century and a half later, but the former at least respected the citizens' intelligence.

Sometimes "boring" is good for democracy.

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