NEW YORK (AP) – Just as they are in the polls, President Bush and John Kerry are fiercely competitive online: Their Web sites both do a good job raising money, engaging volunteers and highlighting their visions.

But mindful of what some of the vanquished Democratic contenders did during the primaries, I find both candidates’ offerings wanting.

When he was still seeking the presidency, John Edwards had an excellent tool for searching position papers without the clutter of news releases and other materials. But alas, it didn’t follow him when he joined the Democratic ticket. The Bush site’s tool is better than Kerry’s but not as comprehensive as Edwards’.

Kerry’s biography and issues section is more extensive than Bush’s, even if specific positions aren’t always easy to find. But you do get plenty, including his military service records and more than the standard one-pagers on his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. (Laura Bush gets all of eight paragraphs.)

I found a lot on what Bush wants to highlight, but couldn’t find any references in his issues section to the death penalty, gun control and gay marriage. Bush does a better job, though, in comparing his stance with Kerry’s.

(To sort out the spin, try a third-party site like FactCheck.org.)

Given the importance of fund-raising in campaigns these days, it’s no surprise both sites make it easy to donate. Both depend on the Web for smaller donations, and Kerry even tries to make it fun by letting you track how much people you’ve recruited have collectively given.

Kerry has links to his Senate and presidential campaign fund-raising reports along with his personal financial disclosures and tax returns (though you don’t get any for his wife, heir to the Heinz ketchup fortune).

The Bush site has a tool for searching the fund-raising database, but it lacks a way to search by occupation or employer – say, you want to know all contributors from major oil companies. Though Kerry’s site has no such tool, it links to third-party sites where larger donations are searchable using such attributes.

Both sites have a campaign Web journal, or blog. Bush’s is flashier, with icons and banners making visitors feel patriotic. But Kerry’s is truer – more about communicating and less about control. Unlike Bush’s, Kerry’s blog lets visitors post comments and links to unofficial sites as well.

Still, both offerings fall far short of what Howard Dean and Wesley Clark had. Dean and Clark made it easy for supporters to create their own blogs and personal Web pages.

The Bush and Kerry sites occasionally trip when accessed via alternative browsers, and both have moderate support for an automated content-delivery technology known as or RSS.

Dean had thrived on both counts.

But true innovation, as those of us who cover technology well know, is not always the strength of those who prevail.

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As for other privacy practices, I turned to privacy expert Richard M. Smith, who discovered that visitors to the Bush site get two tracking data files, called cookies, placed on their computer by an outside company, Omniture Inc.

The campaign’s privacy policy suggests that cookies are used only when someone registers as a volunteer or completes an online poll – not for casual visits. Campaign officials, however, insist any other cookies are not used to track individual usage.

Smith says Kerry previously had a similar cookie, but no longer does.

Both sites also could pay better attention to security: Passwords to unlock features are sent insecurely over e-mail.

The two campaigns do try to engage supporters by encouraging them to write letters to newspaper editors, phone radio talk shows, sign up for newsletters and forward e-mail to friends (It’s spam if it comes from the campaign; less so if it comes from you).

Kerry lets you track what your recruits have done and awards points if they donate money or perform other tasks. The Bush campaign has a similar “Action Center” and promises a personal note from the president for recruiting five volunteers – though it’s hardly personal; it’s something you print out and save.

I like Bush’s tools for connecting supporters with local newspapers and talk shows. Enter a ZIP code, and the closest outlets show up. The Kerry campaign sends you to an outside Web site for that information. Bush also has better tools for letting supporters call or write registered voters directly.


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