WASHINGTON — The directors of the online campaigns for Barack Obama and John McCain refought the November presidential election battle in a testy appearance before a packed Washington ballroom.
Joe Rospars, Obama's "New Media" director, and Michael Palmer, McCain's "eCampaign" chief, sparred head-to-head at a conference hosted by George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.
The unusual joint appearance by the Web strategists behind the Democratic and Republican presidential bids drew a crowd of several hundred journalists, academics, political consultants and congressional staffers.
Those expecting fireworks were not disappointed as the pair traded jabs for an hour, forcing the moderator, radio host, blogger and Twitter celebrity Ana Marie Cox to joke at one point that she would have to pull them apart.
"I'm going to separate you two in a minute," Cox said.
Palmer, clearly still smarting from McCain's election defeat, threw out the first punch, deriding Obama as a "celebrity candidate."
"At the end of the day -- and I'm not trying to be rude here to the president -- but they had a celebrity candidate, he was a novelty," the Republican strategist said.
"That got you a lot of enthusiasm," he told his Democratic opponent. "It got you a lot of support from sectors of the population that wouldn't have normally supported any candidate and that really added to what you were trying to do."
Palmer, who worked on former president George W. Bush's successful 2004 reelection campaign, also pointed repeatedly to a significant difference in resources between the McCain and Obama campaigns.
"I won't cop out on the resources thing even though he had 10 times the staff we had and outspent us five to one online, three to one everywhere else," Palmer said.
"We basically had 1.5 guys full-time on graphics and not just for the Web," the Republican continued. "It was very difficult with such a limited staff.
"I'd like to know how many people you had in that part of your outfit?" he asked his Democratic rival.
Palmer also asked Rospars: "Would Barack Obama have won without you?"
"I think that given the alternative, yes," Rospars shot back in a reference to McCain, before adding that the other leading Democratic contender, Hillary Clinton, "would have beat him too."
Rospars, who now works for Blue State Digital, a Washington-based political consulting firm, said Obama's background as a community organizer helped fuel his successful Web campaign.
"That's part of his political DNA," Rospars said. "That helped shape our technology stratgegy, it helped shape our fundraising strategy, it helped shape our organizing field structure."
During the campaign, more than half of US adults used the Web to engage in the election and Obama supporters were considerably more active online than those of McCain, according to a study by Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project released last week.
Palmer said he believed another reason for Obama's victory was that the Democrat received better treatment from the traditional media than McCain.
"John McCain had a very healthy and respectful relationship with the press and then they screwed him," he said.
The Republican and Democrat found common ground on one point.
"The Internet and the tools of the political Web world are merely that -- they are tools in a toolbox," said Palmer. "Social networking, online activism, emails, fundraising are just tools in a toolbox."
"At the end of the day it's money, people and votes on election day," said Rospars.
Looking to the future, Palmer said "going forward, obviously tools and widgets and tweeting aren't going to get us there.
"We need a candidate and we need a message," he said.
© 2009 AFP. All rights reserved.