Image: Tim Pawlenty
Charlie Neibergall  /  AP
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty speaks during a Tea Party rally on April 16, 2011, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. Republican Tim Pawlenty, "T-Paw" to his supporters, has increasingly tied himself to the new crop of grass-roots activists in the 2012 presidential campaign.
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updated 4/18/2011 10:55:42 AM ET 2011-04-18T14:55:42

Republican Tim Pawlenty disclosed his 2012 presidential aspirations on Facebook. Rival Mitt Romney did it with a tweet. President Barack Obama kicked off his re-election bid with a digital video emailed to the 13 million online backers who helped power his historic campaign in 2008.

Welcome to The Social Network, presidential campaign edition.

The candidates and contenders have embraced the Internet to far greater degrees than previous White House campaigns, communicating directly with voters on platforms where they work and play. If Obama's online army helped define the last campaign and Howard Dean's Internet fundraising revolutionized the Democratic primary in 2004, next year's race will be the first to reflect the broad cultural migration to the digital world.

"You have to take your message to the places where people are consuming content and spending their time," said Romney's online director, Zac Moffatt. "We have to recognize that people have choices and you have to reach them where they are, and on their terms."

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The most influential of those destinations include the video sharing website YouTube; Facebook, the giant social network with 500 million active users; and Twitter, the cacophonous conversational site where news is made and shared in tweets of 140 characters or less.

Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field

All the campaigns have a robust Facebook presence, using the site to post videos and messages and to host online discussions.

In the latest indication of the site's reach and influence, Obama plans to visit Facebook headquarters in California this coming Wednesday for a live chat with company founder Mark Zuckerberg and to take questions from users who submit questions on the site.

First Thoughts: 2012's high stakes

'Digital embassies'
Candidates have embraced Twitter with an intensity that rivals pop star Justin Bieber's. Twitter was the Republican hopefuls' platform of choice last Wednesday, moments after Obama gave a budget speech calling for some tax increases and decrying GOP proposals to cut Medicare.

"President Obama doesn't get it. The fear of higher taxes tomorrow hurts job creation today," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour tweeted.

"The president's plan will kill jobs and increase the deficit," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned in a tweet, attaching a link to a more detailed statement posted on Facebook.

In the past, candidates would have pointed supporters to their websites for such a response. Now, as Moffatt puts it, "the campaign site may be headquarters, but it needs digital embassies across the web."

Story: Look beyond celebrities for 2012 Tea Party effect

Republicans once seemed slow to harness the power of the web. The party's 2008 nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, told reporters he didn't even use email. The 2012 hopefuls have worked hard to prove their Internet savvy, particularly with social media.

Pawlenty "understands the power of new technology and he wants it to be at the forefront. We are going to compete aggressively with President Obama in this space," spokesman Alex Conant said. Conant pointed to efforts to live stream videos to Facebook and award points and badges to supporters in a way that mirrors Foursquare, the emerging location-based mobile site.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain's 2008 running mate and a potential presidential candidate this time, has made Facebook a centerpiece of her communication efforts to supporters.

Palin has been criticized for treating it as a one-way form of communication that allows her to bypass direct questions from reporters and voters. Other Republicans insist they're willing to wade into the messy digital fray and cede some control of their message.

"We trust our supporters and want to err on the side of giving them more control, not less," Conant said.

Plenty of pitfalls
Just as social networking liberates candidates to take their message directly to voters, it offers plenty of pitfalls as well.

It's prone to mischief, with dozens of fake Twitter accounts and Facebook pages popping up daily that are intended to embarrass the candidates. Also, a candidate's gaffe or an inconsistency on issues can be counted on to go viral immediately.

Gingrich has gotten ensnared in some online traps. His apparent back-and-forth on whether the U.S. should intervene in the conflict in Libya was discussed widely and amplified online. He first advocated military engagement, then came out against it after Obama ordered airstrikes.

Twitter lit up with the news that a photo on Gingrich's exploratory website showing people waving flags was a stock photo once used by the late liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.

Spokesman Rick Tyler rejected such criticism and said Gingrich has pioneered the use of digital technology.

"Over 1.4 million people follow him on Twitter. He has a very active Facebook. There are eight websites connected to organizations started by Newt (that) use social media platforms to communicate to their coalitions," Tyler said.

But Josh Dorner, who tracks GOP candidates online for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said the Republican presidential hopefuls appear to be unprepared for the unforgiving pace of the digital age.

Obama, who in 2008 had to recover from plenty of web-amplified flubs such as his comment that bitter small town voters "cling" to guns and religion, will probably be more nimble, Dorner said.

"We are moving in a warp speed environment, and none of the Republican candidates understand the media environment in which they're operating. It puts them at a huge disadvantage to the president," Dorner said.

Strategists also say the greatest digital innovation in 2012 may not even have surfaced yet, even as campaigns figure out how to do effective microtargeting ads for Facebook and work to develop "apps" for smart phones rather than laptops and traditional TV.

"As with anything, there's going to be a shiny new cell phone every six months," said Matt Ortega, a former online organizer for the Democratic National Committee. "You're going to see both new tools and more sophistication in existing tools."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

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