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Somerville stumps in cyberspace

BASEBALL GAMES are decided based on which team scores more runs. Political campaigns are won by the candidate who gets the most votes on election day. In a narrow sense, nothing else matters.

How they get there changes all the time. Baseball teams have sabermetricians to help figure out how to adjust their tactics to come up with those runs. In politics, too, the way that candidates convince voters to cast their ballots for them is an ever-evolving science.

One of the big changes in politics is the emergence of campaigns that are fought out not just on the street corners of the 351 Massachusetts cities and towns but also in cyberspace.

It's not that the fundamentals of campaigning have changed. They haven't. Candidates still need money, staff, volunteers, position papers, advertisements. The point is there's a vibrant new dimension to campaigning. The most successful campaigns find ways to combine the traditional with the new-fangled -- as Bob Massie of Somerville, the 1994 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, once put it: the ''classical" with the ''jazz."

Use of the Internet in campaigns hit the big time last year. Howard Dean made Internet-powered campaigning exciting to hundreds of thousands of Americans. John Kerry raised record-breaking amounts online. George Bush eclipsed them both, using virtual campaigning in its most effective form to date.

Not every campaign has bought into using the Internet . I live in Somerville, where we went to the polls this week for a special election to replace the late state Senator Charles Shannon. Before heading out to vote, I checked in on the state of virtual campaigning in Massachusetts.

With the help of Google, I started by looking for the simplest thing: websites for each of the four candidates. A simple search turned up only one -- state Representative Pat Jehlen had her own website. There were MeetUp sites to help coordinate in-person events and pages devoted to her endorsements by progressive organizations, making a case for her candidacy and offering a way for people to get involved in her campaign.

Even though the candidates didn't spend much time publishing information about their campaigns online, many third parties told the story of the campaign in cyberspace. What if you wanted to use the Internet to get involved, to talk about the election, or just to lurk? Plenty of options.

The Democratic Underground had an active thread. KarenInMA kicked off a long online discourse: ''Hey! Somervillians! Let's talk about the Special Election." Yahoo! Groups hosted information relevant to the race from the Young Democrats of Massachusetts. Independent bloggers, like Frederick Clarkson, weighed in on the race.

The richest source of information that Google turned up was Somerville News's terrific blog, with online coverage of the race over several months. Articles covered the endorsements of state Representative Joe Mackey and coverage of a debate, but the best part of the Somerville News's blog is the space for comments -- real-time feedback from voters.

Listen to the talk-back from the people of Somerville. A fair amount is serious and substantive, including a back-and-forth about various legislative proposals, including marijuana legislation, crime fighting, and the history of the firing of janitors at Tufts.

Other comments were tactical: ''Mr. [Michael] Callahan seems like a great guy but at this point voting for him over Mr. Mackey would be just like casting at vote for Mrs. Jehlen."

The comments are raw. They sound for all the world like the yapping in a real conversation in a coffee shop. Hopefully, the online variety is supplementing, but not replacing, the coffee shop variety.

In Somerville, the candidates for state Senate didn't have the Internet religion. The race's winner, Pat Jehlen (for whom I voted), had the strongest cyberpresence, but a modest one at that. It's unlikely that her cyber-coordinator can claim to have pulled many winning votes.

But it's clear that a feisty group of voters did gather online throughout the race and left a clear record of their presence. The trail of these voters reveals an informal focus group held online over several months. The most successful politicians will learn to listen, if not to participate, in this conversation. Sooner or later, candidates, even for local office, will find votes in cyberspace.

John Palfrey is executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

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