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High-Tech Campaign Goes Faster - but Has Limits

Faxes, computers, satellites have not brought Utopia. ELECTORAL ELECTRONS

IT won't make any speeches this week, won't vote, wave banners, or even talk. Yet the Republican convention was loaded with it.

It is high technology - the computers and electronic communication devices that are leading a forced march along the campaign trail.

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"Technology in the last four years has just expanded dramatically," says David Winston, director of strategic information at the Republican National Committee. "It makes everybody a lot more productive."

Better, faster, cheaper technology is speeding up American politics. Scholars aren't so sure about the better or cheaper part.

"With every new breakthrough in media technologies, there are always these varieties of utopian pronouncements," says Daniel Czitrom, author of "Media and the American Mind." "Usually things develop in very different ways."

"The technologies themselves offer ambiguous promises," adds Richard Sclove, executive director of the Loka Institute in Amherst, Mass. "It doesn't mean Big Brother has arrived. But it doesn't offer a democratic panacea either."

The high-tech infiltration is happening along a broad front. For example:

* Computers. Republicans at their national convention four years ago were hooked up to a mainframe computer via a network of Wang terminals. Par for the course in 1988, the technology is completely outdated today.

The Republican National Committee now uses a large network of personal computers. The setup is not only cheaper than the mainframe, it's more flexible. Staffers in Washington working on an issue paper can send a draft electronically, or push a button to have it print out at the Houston convention.

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Four years ago, the convention sported few portable computers (weighing 20 pounds or less). Today, they're everywhere (and much more powerful and less bulky). Staffers needing access to information stored in Washington have only to dial into the network. "We lose nothing by being out of the building," Mr. Winston says.

* Faxes. The Democrats are using computer networks and laptops, too. But sometimes the best high tech is the most mundane. The International Union of Bricklayers, for example, is one of many organizations receiving daily Clinton faxes. An active Clinton supporter, the union sends along pertinent information to its officials in the field.

"In '88, one of the criticisms leveled at the Dukakis campaign was that it didn't immediately respond to attacks," says Joanna Reagan, the union's assistant to the president for governmental relations. Now "we can send out talking points on the computer and the fax and they've got it that afternoon."

"It certainly speeds up the news cycle," says Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University. At times, the Clinton response to GOP attacks has been so quick that reporters weren't aware of the attack, he adds.

* Polling. The changes here are incremental. The big break came in 1960, when John Kennedy's pollster broke with tradition and did statewide polling, says University of Minnesota political scientist Lawrence Jacobs. Campaign polling has become more sophisticated since, with the use of focus groups as well as surveys. But like Kennedy, Clinton is using polling data on the issues to project himself as a move-ahead candidate, Professor Jacobs says.

The '92 campaign sports other, newer technologies.

Candidates have used satellite technology to give live interviews to local television stations. They've held regional and even national meetings with supporters via satellite linkups.

Presidential candidates have handed out videos. Democrat Jerry Brown made good use of a toll-free 800 number in his unsuccessful run for president. Both Ross Perot and Bill Clinton picked up on that idea. The Clinton campaign has used electronic bulletin boards to gather and answer voters' questions.

Perhaps the biggest high-tech innovation of all was Mr. Perot's campaign. The billionaire businessman had no party, no natural constituency. He launched his bid on "Larry King Live," a national television call-in show. Yet in the space of a few weeks, he had a grass-roots organization in place.

Early on, Mr. Perot suggested an electronic town meeting for the nation. The idea is that voters could tune in to a debate about a national issue then vote their preference. The future of that idea looks shaky with Perot's withdrawal from the race. Maybe that's for the best, political observers say.

The idea works locally, when the issues are sewers and schools, but not nationally, Professor West says. "At the national level you're talking about things like war and peace. The danger of uninformed decisionmaking is much greater."

But stay tuned for election year 1996.

"The technology genie is now out of the bottle," West adds, and "there's no way to put it back in."

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