Despite carefully stage-managed public appearances and news conferences in real locations like warehouses and suburban kitchens, it didn't take long for the online campaign to grab the spotlight.
The parties are scrambling to tap every social-networked, viral video advantage they can, no doubt with visions of harnessing the kind of online following that helped propel Barack Obama to victory in the Democratic primaries earlier this year. Online tools not even on the public's radar during the last election - Facebook and Twitter to name but two - look conspicuous by their absence from party websites this time around. It's one thing to hit the trail without a campaign plane or a full slate of nominated candidates - but minus a Flash-enabled website? How could you possibly be ready to govern a dominion of 33 million people?
On Day 3 of the election campaign, the online campaign became the story in three key fronts:
1. Attack! Attack! Retreat! Retreat!
Is it any surprise the first misstep of the campaign came courtesy of an over-zealous worker on a Conservative party website? No party has been as aggressive in using the online space as the Conservatives. Even while holding the reins of power (albeit in a minority government), the party regularly produced gleefully satirical Web ads lampooning Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion's mannerisms and policies, in a style reminicent of Frank magazine. Remember such hits (and misses) as the rapping duo of Dion and Ignatieff, or that funny little grease spot?
Those were just the warm-up to notaleader.ca, an impressively produced, amusing and - as it turned out - puffin-poop-laced Conservative site that ultimately forced the campaigning Prime Minister to interrupt his first policy announcement press conference to apologize to his rival. The puffin droppings (pictured above) were removed, but the site itself remains up and at 'em.
So, will "puffin-gate" spell the end to these online attack ads? Not likely, when they are so cheap and easy to produce - and when you can simply pull them down and blame one of the Web geeks when they backfire.
2. Image makeover
Separate, branded websites devoted to a party leader, distinct from the party, aren't new - the leaders in Ontario's election last fall were featured in chatty, informal videos on sites that played up their first names. But the launch of the Liberals' This Is Dion site made news today for offering hitherto unknown insights on the Opposition Leader's love of fishing and outdoor activities. This look at the private Dion is presented through videos and photo galleries in an online environment designed to resemble a lovingly appointed desktop in a rustic cottage. The homey feel is the antithesis of the Conservative attack site - but which one will appeal more to the online reader is hard to tell.
3. The Great Debate
The other media controversy of the day was left over from the day before - the exclusion of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May from the televised leaders' debates. Here is where the media shift brought about by the Internet may be most clear - in excluding May from that ultra-Establishment forum, the parties and networks unleashed an online debate not only among commentators on news websites but on the party's own social network sites that are supposed to make them seem so in touch. NDP Leader Jack Layton's Facebook page, unlike the one maintained for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has a "Wall" where the public can post messages - and by midday Tuesday the exercise in online democracy was in full swing, with dozens of messages critical of the NDP's decision to keep May out. Facebook sites for the Liberal and Conservative party - nominally "unofficial" but endorsed by key MPs from their respective parties - were similarly deluged with comments, both for and against the decision.
Is it a hopeful sign that arguably the most effective demonstration of the Internet's role in the campaign at this early stage was the one that allowed voters to talk back to the politicians?