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Obama’s clicking —  but not on the Web

Look at Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign website. Not much going on there: no blogs, no video, no trail reports, no media-rich mechanics for involving people. What gives?
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Look at Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign website. Not much going on there: no blogs, no video, no trail reports, no media-rich mechanics for involving people. What gives? Robert Gibbs, his communications director, tells me that all of that will change on February 10 – the day on which Obama is expected to formally declare his candidacy with a speech in Springfield, Illinois. (Will he take the Abe Lincoln thing all the way: a long black coat, a stovepipe hat and a speech of no more than 250 words?)

Maybe Obama is such a rock star that he doesn’t need the mechanics this early in the game. The guy has a natural appeal that Sen. Hillary Clinton can’t match – though she is trying – and that makes even the sunny and engaging John Edwards (the golden boy of the last campaign) look boring.

But it isn’t early, and Obama had better get a move on. When Hillary announced the other week, her campaign went live with a website they’d been working on for quite some time. It had been kept under wraps, with key players having secure access to tweak it into a state-of-the-art enterprise - which it is. Edwards’ site, with its video-based approach, is also first rate.

I don’t want to make too much of websites: President Bush drew 42 million viewers for the State of the Union – a colossal number by web standards for political chatter of any kind. And candidates aren’t running around trying to raise $150 million or more for banner ads. Most of the ad money still will go to local broadcast television stations and networks – the supposed digital dinosaurs who nevertheless remain the courthouse steps of campaigning.

But the web situation is an example of where things stand right now in the early stages of the Democratic race. Obama got in the first major salvo – which Hillary has answered with the entire Panzer Division. You can hear the tank treads clanking as she tries to take the high ground. And she may be gaining some.

I was talking just now to an influential, activist Democrat in New Hampshire. I can’t identify who this person is. She was blown away by Obama when he visited the state the other week. She had seen politicians come through the state for years, but never seen one like Obama. He was comfortable in his own skin, he represented a new generation. Although he technically was a Boomer, he was at the young end of that cohort, and since he had gone to law school late, he “read” to her like a Gen Xer: new. He was so sensible, so smart.

She told him she wanted to be involved – but she hasn’t heard anything since from anyone associated with Obama.

In the meantime, Hillary’s people in Washington and New Hampshire have been all over her. They are pleaded with her to sign up NOW – with the unspoken implication that they need her before Feb. 10. They are making sure that she has contacted other women activists, who make the argument: Yes Obama is cool, but he is not as ready as Hillary. What’s more, they contend, there will be time for him to make history. In the meantime, it is time for a WOMAN to make history – and Hillary is the only woman on the horizon with a chance to do that.

As for Edwards, who is better organized in Iowa than anyone else, the question is: how do I get on stage again? He and Obama have set up what amounts to a new Battle of New Orleans over who cares more for the neglected NOLA. But his best chance to move into the spotlight is the war in Iraq – and to argue that senators in Washington are fiddling while Baghdad burns. Then, in the debates that begin this spring, he has to use his trial attorney skills to go on the attack against all of the sitting politicians on the stage with him.

Edwards' strategists say they are content to stay above the fray. But I would not be surprised if he were to preview that strategy in his appearance at the Democratic National Committee meeting here in Washington on Friday. It’s a series of speeches by the candidates, but the closest thing Edwards will get to a face-to-face confrontation for a while.

I know it sounds crazy – it’s a year from the first vote – but Obama better get that website up and running, fast.