Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING
TALLAHASSEE - When Sen. Rod Smith took his gubernatorial campaign to Jacksonville in July, an aide needed mere minutes to post pictures of the North Florida Democrat with a small crowd of local dignitaries, firefighters and their families on the campaign Web blog.
Attorney General Charlie Crist's Web site doesn't have a blog, but it does have a ticking clock counting down the days until Crist presumably triumphs over his GOP primary opponent, Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher. But not so fast - at the top of Gallagher's Web site is a chart stressing key differences between himself and Crist before the Sept. 5 primary.
The Web has never played as integral of a role in a Florida political race as this year's contest among the four front-runners, Republicans Crist and Gallagher and Democrats Smith and Jim Davis. From blogs to streaming video to online credit-card contributions, the Internet is playing a key role in winning over undecided voters, motivating supporters and simply growing a candidate's team.
"They've really come into their own as a genre. If you look at the Web sites back from 1996, it would make you laugh today," said Danielle Wiese, an assistant professor of communications at Florida State University and a nationally published analyst of political Web sites. "... The sites also now can appeal to that segment of the population that is most comfortable with technology. Even voters 21 to 35 have grown up on computers, so the appeal moves beyond just the youth category."
Campaigns say the Web's greatest benefit is its cost-effectiveness. Television ads that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars can be posted for free online, and phone bank operations that required substantial expense and preparation a decade ago can be organized using volunteers.
They can also provide a constant reminder of visual images the candidates want etched into the mind of the electorate - Crist's and Gallagher's sites, for example, both show them shoulder-to-shoulder with Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, an icon for conservative voters. The home page at Davis' site shows him listening to a minority voter.
Because running for the state's highest office means less privacy than ever, three of the four candidates - all but Davis - have posted their income tax returns.
The campaigns won't disclose their Web hits, but their popularity and usefulness is hard to deny.
"It's integrated into every aspect of the campaign," said Josh Earnest, communications director for Davis. "We've posted live Web chats with the candidate, which we like because it collapses the geographic limitations and gives people access to him. We've posted our ads, and the day we released our first ad our regular traffic more than doubled."
There are unique touches to each site. Crist's site has a countdown clock. …