Tim Pawlenty was debating his GOP rivals on two stages on Monday night: One in New Hampshire and one on Twitter.
Take, for example, a 9:30 p.m. post to the short text-messaging service, made in the thick of the debate, from his official account @timpawlenty. “I'm the most pro-life candidate in the race,” the tweet said. “I haven't just talked about it, I've done it.” The comment was quoting a comment the ex-Minnesota governor had just said during the debate.
But his campaign tweets didn't just parrot Pawlenty. His spokesman, Alex Conant, spent much of the debate retweeting favorable comments from conservative pundits and mainstream journalists. His tweets, in turn, were seen by thousands of followers, including many influential pundits and journalists.
Pawlenty’s campaign was just one of the seven represented on stage on Monday night that aggressively made their cases over the relatively new digital medium, another sign of how influential the five-year-old social-media service has become. And as the primary and then general-election campaigns ramp up, it’s poised to become to become an even more powerful force in what will be the first Twitter presidential election.
“2012 is the first presidential race where Twitter really has a massive role,” said Vincent Harris, a Republican strategist and social media consultant.
Twitter’s rise is a tactical challenge for campaigns: How do they use a service that could, theoretically, give everyone on the campaign a bullhorn and gives candidates and staffers alike a chance to confront rivals and opponents in full view of the public and media? It’s a challenge that could provide ripe rewards for adept campaigns, but also poses potential perils.
In a race that's up for grabs, any advantage could be important. For whichever campaign best and most quickly learns to handle Twitter, that could be a small but significant edge.
One thing is for sure: No campaign can afford to be without a Twitter account.
“It’s now just like having a telephone in the 1950s -- you had to have one,” said Albert May, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University who has studied the use of Twitter on Capitol Hill. “You had to adapt to TV. You had to adapt to radio."
Twitter’s power is not in how many people are on it, but in who uses it. Even if the total number of people on the service remains small relative to the number of actual voters, its users comprise an elite that talks to and moves larger audiences.
“On Twitter, there is no doubt you are reaching the influencers, you are reaching the media, activists, elected officials,” said Harris. “You are reaching political grassroots leaders."
So if it’s not a question of whether campaigns engage on the social-media service, it becomes a question of how. And the playbook for how campaigns should use it remains unwritten.
Every GOP candidate already has what amounts to a flagship account – an official Twitter handle that Tweets official statements. Newt Gingrich, for instance, used his account to declare he was running for president, the first candidate to do so. In an interview before he -- along with many other fellow senior staffers -- left the Gingrich campaign last week, the candidate's longtime spokesman, Rick Tyler, discussed the advantages of Twitter's capacity to go viral. A single message can be retweeted instantaneously by supporters and journalists, spreading the statement much more quickly than if it were sent over e-mail. It makes Twitter an ideal medium for delivering a message -- or responding to a criticism -- swiftly.
“E-mailed statements are static,” said Tyler.
They are also private, unless and until the sender or recipient of the missive makes it public. Tweets, on the other hand, are available for anyone to see, creating a digital stage where rival candidates can lob one-liners at each other before an audience of discerning handicappers.
The best example of that came in late May when Pawlenty tweeted at President Obama, who was touring Europe, "Sorry to interrupt your European pub crawl, but what was your Medicare plan?" The tweet immediately caused a stir in the media, earning him a plethora of free and -- in a Republican primary -- positive news stories about criticizing Obama.
Whether staffers, using their own accounts, would have the same leeway to throw digital darts at rivals is a different question, and it's one that could lead to tricky terrain for campaigns. Doing so would allow campaigns more flexibility to engage critics, even in the media, while insulating the candidate from taking personal responsibility for the criticism. But the same freedom could turn into a political nightmare in the hands of an impulsive aide who, with quick access to a platform, could say or do something they regret.
In other words, remember what happened to Anthony Weiner.
“It is very important that every campaign staffer understand that everything you put out, you can’t take it back," Harris said. "And Anthony Weiner proved you can’t even lie your way out of it.”
Determining who can and can't tweet on behalf of the campaign is important, the strategist added, and even then, an entry-level staffer in Iowa could harm a campaign with a single unauthorized, illicit tweet. Everybody has a bullhorn now -- not just the campaign's communications professionals.
"It’s very scary," said Harris. "It's very, very scary."
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