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COMPUTING

From...

Presidential campaign sites going fast

December 24, 1998
Web posted at: 11:00 AM EST

by James Ledbetter and Mark Gimein

(IDG) -- Presidential candidate Web sites are too young to have an official history, but when it is written, the Bob Dole site will likely have its own chapter. In 1996, when most Americans had never traveled on the World Wide Web, Dole told a nationwide debate audience: "If you really want to get involved, just tap into my home page: www.dolekemp96.org." Some 2 million computer users did, and since then, Web sites have been considered as essential as balloons and ready cash in campaign war chests.

But a candidate's path to a logical, easy-to-remember Web site is not always a simple one. Take, for example, the case of Rep. Richard Gephardt. Though he has not officially announced a bid for the 2000 presidential race, Gephardt is widely considered a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination. But on the Web, he won't soon be using any of several sensible names for his campaign home page -- www.gephardt.com, www.gephardt.org, www.gephardt2000.com or www.gephardt2000.org -- because all of those domains are already registered to people unaffiliated with the Gephardt campaign.

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At least the congressman can console himself with the thought that in the event of a primary battle against Al Gore -- a speculative scenario that's a favorite of the wonkish classes -- his opponent could be in much the same predicament. The rights to www.gore2000.org belong, according to domain registries, to Michael Gill of Denver, Colo.

Indeed, one finds that for nearly all American politicians who've been mentioned as possible presidential material, one or more natural-seeming domain names have been snapped up. In many cases, as with corporate names, Web flag planters have signed up for politically named Web sites in hopes of eventually selling them to candidates. But the Web sites can also be used as a handy -- and perfectly legal -- form of dirty tricks.

The site www.lamar2000.org, for example, belongs not to once-and-possibly-future presidential hopeful Lamar Alexander, but to a conservative political activist who's trying to keep Alexander from getting the Republican nomination. Dikran Yacoubian of Germantown, Tenn., holds the rights to that name. Yacoubian has also staked out 11 other sites that sound like they would belong to state and national candidates, including www.bradley2000.com, www.pataki2000.com, and www.bush2000.org.

In an e-mail interview with The Standard, Yacoubian admitted that he would like to sell some of his eponymous sites to the actual candidates, but added that his goal is "to make sure the Republicans end up with a conservative nominee."

Although Yacoubian is not presently working with any of the campaigns, he pledges that "there will be candidate-specific sites at all the domains I own, and they will not be spoofs. They will be professionally done sites outlining the candidates' records, for better or worse." He declined to say whether he'd had discussions with any potential candidates, because "some of the campaigns have interest in domains other than their own."

Yacoubian began registering presidential sites about two years ago, and has used other sites to create political mischief. During this year's New York senatorial race, for example, he bought the rights to www.ferraro98.org; anyone who went to the site was shown a "Vote D'Amato!" icon and then directed to Senator Al D'Amato's Senate site. (Ferraro lost the primary. D'Amato subsequently lost the general election to Charles Schumer.)

Such domain-name maneuvering has in turn led supporters of some candidates to reserve addresses in the hope of keeping them out of opponents' hands. Ted Weinstein, a San Francisco, Calif., Web business strategist and public relations agent, registered a number of potential domain names for Al Gore's year 2000 race. These include www.gorebradley.org, www.goredaley.org and www.gorekerry.org.

Weinstein says that he would like to hand over the domain names to Gore's campaign organization, but hasn't been able to get the attention of Gore's staff. "If I lied and said I was from the media," grouses Weinstein, "I might get someone to call me back, but I wouldn't do that." Weinstein says he is especially irritated by the idea that the government's most vocal advocate for the Net should be in a position to risk losing the rights to key domain names.

The problem for the not-yet-declared candidate is that there is no official Gore campaign organization, even though the veep is an all-but-certain contender. "There's no apparatus, so we can't really do anything," says Chris Lehane, a spokesperson for the vice president. What about the Democratic National Committee? That isn't an option either: A spokesperson for the DNC says that the national organization can't do anything for key democrats until they are candidates in the general election.

In practice, politicians have to count on supporters to keep their Web addresses safe. In some cases, however, even having supporters watch out for you isn't enough. Supporters of Texas governor George Bush (son of the former president) have registered www.bush2000.com -- but Yacoubian beat them to www.bush2000.org.

For now, politicians are treating the Web-address war as little more than an annoyance. Eric Smith, a spokesman for Richard Gephardt, told The Standard he was aware that Yacoubian had registered the URL www.gephardt2000.com, but insisted that no one in Gephardt's office has had any dealings with Yacoubian. According to Smith, it won't be a problem because the Gephardt campaign could always come up with its own URLs. "Besides," he added, "my boss hasn't decided if he's going to run for president or not."

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