Alaska's former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel, 77, is making waves in the race for the presidency, employing the most modern of campaign strategies.
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With little money to get his message out, Gravel is using YouTube and an imaginative corps of volunteers on the Internet to develop and distribute his videos.
"The whole Internet crowd has really latched on," Gravel said this week in an interview with the Juneau Empire.
Even with the possibilities of the Internet, it's an uphill battle for someone who hasn't won an election in more than three decades.
And it's an unlikely strategy for success, except for one thing: Gravel's done it before, winning an improbable victory in Alaska with similar tactics.
Quirky "Rock" video that's kept the attention coming
Gravel first energized his campaign with a standout showing in an April debate in South Carolina.
The debate was on the little-watched MSNBC cable network, but a comment from Gravel that "these other candidates scare me" started to get attention, along with his unwavering position on the Iraq war.
"This war was lost the day George Bush invaded Iraq on a fraudulent basis," he said.
While many politicians fear alienating supporters by saying what they really think, Gravel started with too few supporters to worry about that. With initial support being barely measurable in the polls, Gravel began to attract support by saying what he means.
He appeared with a group of Democrats that included both early supporters of the war and those who say they oppose it but that the United States can't leave now because of the number of troops who have been killed there. Gravel challenged both with calls for an immediate withdrawal.
"You know what's worse than a soldier dying in vain? More soldiers dying in vain. That's what's worse," he said.
Gravel only got about six minutes on camera during the three-hour South Carolina debate, but he made it memorable.
A compilation of his comments has so far been seen by 283,000 viewers on YouTube, and was the site's most viewed video in the 24 hours after the debate, he said.
Since then he's come up with another YouTube hit, a quirky campaign video in which Gravel stares silently at the camera for a minute and a half. In the background a trail wends its way along a pond and birds chirp.
Gravel turns, heaves a rock into the still waters of the pond. As he walks off into the distance ripples from the splash fade away.
Mike Gravel on the issues:
If I'm president, I'll do away with the war on drugs, which does nothing but savage our inner cities and put our children at risk. Addiction is a public health issue, not a criminal issue, where we throw people in jail and criminalize them to no advancement to the people.
You think it's an accident that all of a sudden we wake up, that the wealthy aren't paying a fair share? The only way they're going to pay a fair share is wipe out the income tax - it is corrupt; it's corrupting our society - and begin to put in place a tax that everybody will know what everybody's paying.
More Americans died because of (some of Gravel's Democratic opponents') decision. That disqualifies them for president. It doesn't mean they're bad people. It just means that they don't have moral judgment. And that's very important when you become president.
Mike Gravel online
Campaign Web site: www.gravel2008.us.
MIke Gravel's blog: www.gravel2008.us/blog.
There's no narration, though his campaign Web site, www.gravel2008.us, is superimposed on the screen at one point. It's not clear what the video even means, but that might not be the point either.
What's important is that of last count, almost 175,000 YouTube viewers have watched the video and probably wondered who this Mike Gravel is.
His "rock" video is just one of the unusual politician's campaign strategies. It wasn't even made by official campaign supporters.
It since has been joined on YouTube by the even more inexplicable "fire" video, shot by the same team at the same time. Both were done by supporters outside his campaign who simply asked for a day of his time to produce them, he said.
Alaskans remember Gravel as the man who upset former Sen. Ernest Gruening in 1968, a man who had served two terms as a U.S. Senator, after a storied career as territorial governor and newspaper editor.
Gruening remains best known nationally for joining with Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse to cast the only two votes against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which empowered the United States to enter the Vietnam War on false pretenses.
Gravel later came to oppose the Vietnam War, and made his own headlines when he entered the controversial Pentagon Papers into the Federal Record during a speech on the Senate Floor, making them available publicly.
Later, Gruening's grandson, Juneau lawyer and city lobbyist Clark Gruening, challenged Gravel in the 1980 Democratic primary. Gravel lost to Gruening, who went on to lose to Frank Murkowski in the general election.
'Mike Gravel: A Man for Alaska' video that broke new ground 40 years ago.
For Alaskans, Gravel said his legacy is likely the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, which he helped win passage of by a single vote. Had that vote failed, the growing clout of the environmental movement likely would have meant that Alaska's vast oil resources would never have been developed.
"Had we not got the Alaska pipeline, the national environmental community would have stopped it and the state would be bankrupt today," he said.
Views like that make Gravel hard to pigeonhole for national observers, who didn't know what to make of his performance in South Carolina.
"You've got to keep in mind I was a maverick from their point of view," he said.
For the last 15 years Gravel has been working on what he calls the "national initiative." The former senator is trying to make the ballot initiative process, like that used in Alaska and 23 other states, available to address national policy. The last time he was in Alaska was two years ago, he said, speaking at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on the proposal.
These days Gravel said he spends a great deal of time addressing the Iraq issue, because it affects the country's ability to help its own people.
Gravel first used video to his advantage in 1968, when he, as a relative newcomer to Alaska, defeated the legendary Gruening in the Democratic primary.
Polls at one point showed Gruening up by 2-1 or better.
In his autobiography "Many Battles," Gruening said that it was known then that Gravel relied on a documentary of his life to win the primary.
Gravel had not even entered the race when he produced a half-hour documentary "Mike Gravel: A Man for Alaska."
"Mike's film was shown on every television station in Alaska, twice a day, 10 days before the election. Planes carried the film and a projector to every village," Gruening wrote.
"The film had a great impact on and demonstrated the effectiveness of a new campaigning technique, which had never been used before in Alaska," he said.
Gruening credited the effectiveness of the film with his loss by 1,694 votes.
Gravel said the film wasn't just new for Alaska.
"It was also fairly rare nationally," he said. "I would not have gotten elected to the Senate without the movie."
Contact Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or email@example.com.
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