WASHINGTON—A presidential candidate's macaca moment is coming. Count on it.
When George Allen, a Virginia Republican running for re-election last year to the U.S. Senate, directed the word "macaca" at an opposition worker of Indian descent, the audience extended far beyond the few dozen small-town Virginians who witnessed the incident. Thanks to the Internet—and a Web-savvy opponent—it convulsed Allen's campaign and helped torpedo his bid against Democrat James Webb.
In the old days, candidates reaching for questionable humor or making mistakes caused by the exhaustion of long days on the campaign trail could count on flubs made in Peoria to stay in Peoria. Now, thanks to YouTube and a world in which a cell phone can tape video, they can be posted online within minutes for the world to see.
"There is no (safety) net anymore," said Will Robinson, a Democratic media consultant unaffiliated with any presidential campaign. "You are out there all the time."
Already in the 2008 campaign, Democratic New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's off-key rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Iowa has provided online giggles. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain was lampooned for beginning the answer to a question in South Carolina about Iran policy by singing, "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran," to the tune of the Beach Boys hit "Barbara Ann."
In both instances, the brief furors played for laughs. But Clinton's singing had more than 1.2 million YouTube views, and McCain's nearly 1 million. That highlights the potential danger of unscripted moments if, like Allen's, voters consider them offensive or inappropriate.
It's enough to keep the most sanguine aide awake at night. Political campaigns are all about command and control, and especially about message and image. Such videos threaten that system at its core.
Many say that's a good thing.
"It gives democracy an institutional memory," Robinson said. "Anything a candidate says or does has a permanent record. You say one thing in Peoria and another in Rock Island, you're held accountable."
It also helps voters get a glimpse of the real people behind the campaign facade, for better or worse.
"For decades, politicians have presented themselves one way," said Julie Barko Germany, the deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at The George Washington University in Washington. "The images we've seen are air-brushed, fluffed-up and blow-dried. People are attracted to these videos because they make politicians seem human."
There are other dangers. Candidates could, like Hollywood celebrities, find themselves hounded as they "walk to the corner Starbucks for a cup of coffee," Germany said.
Politicians could become even less likely to say anything interesting for fear of an Allen-like meltdown.
But voters "want authenticity. This nation is starving for it," said Alan Rosenblatt, the executive director of the Internet Advocacy Center, an online-strategy group. A candidate who's too stiff probably would turn off voters.
After his Iran comments, McCain told critics to "lighten up and get a life." On his next trip to South Carolina, he repeatedly took and exited the stage with "Barbara Ann" blaring over the sound system.
"He embraced it!" Rosenblatt said. "McCain was being himself. I don't think he lost any voters over it."
Most candidates and consultants, however, consider the new media a threat rather than an opportunity, Rosenblatt and others said.
"My response to the bed-wetters is, `You're going to be dealing with al-Qaida and terrorist threats. If you can't handle a bunch of college students with cell-phone video cameras, you shouldn't be president,'" said Robinson, the media consultant. "It's another test, and what's good about it is everyone is affected the same way."