Win a debate date with ... Bill Clinton?

Fundraising contests become a staple of '08 presidential campaigns.

The subject line on the e-mail from Bill Clinton was enough to grab the attention even of a political reporter with an overflowing inbox: "You, me, a TV and a bowl of chips."

The deal was, donate to his wife's presidential campaign by midnight Sept. 30, and you'd have a chance to watch a campaign debate with the former president. Three winners will be selected at random, and each can bring a guest.

"I'm excited about this idea because it involves three things I really enjoy: watching debates, watching Hillary run for president, and meeting her strongest supporters," read the e-mail.

This is the year when presidential campaigns met the sweepstakes giveaway: Put your feet up with Bill Clinton. Have dinner with Barack Obama. Vote to have John Edwards come to your town. Answer some trivia questions about Fenway Park and win an expense-paid trip to a barbecue dinner with Mitt Romney.

As a cultural phenomenon, the 2008 marriage of campaigns and contests seems to fit the times. Just as anyone with a modicum of talent or beauty can get their 15 minutes of fame on "American Idol" or "America's Next Top Model," so too can average-Joe political supporters win a moment in the spotlight – or at least the gaze of a famous politician.

Some contests have been linked to fundraising, raising questions of whether they are the 2008 version of allowing preferred donors to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom, a practice President Clinton himself was accused of in 1996. In fact, the contests are aimed at the small donors, not the high-rollers. And the fine print for the Clintons' debate-watching sweepstakes indicates that a donation is not required to enter. The same was true for Senator McCain's contest for donors: Win a ride on the Straight Talk Express.

Still, as the third quarter of 2007 closed on Sunday night, contests have proved a useful gimmick for candidates trying to squeeze out as many campaign dollars as possible from donors (though final numbers were not available at the time of writing).

In a campaign that even the hardiest political junkies say has dragged on way too long, contests like these have become a staple for many of the candidates as a way to break the tedium of endless speeches, town-hall meetings, and policy debates.

But there's also a danger, it would seem, that contests trivialize the important process of selecting the nation's next president. James Kotecki, a video blogger, or "vlogger," at Politico.com, disagrees.

"I think it's just a fun way to keep people interested," he says. "It's a very long campaign season, and so if we didn't have fun things now and then it would get pretty bad."

If nothing else, the contests have generated a bonanza of Web traffic. Web videos announcing Clinton's month-long contest for a theme song drew more than a million views, according to the campaign, and more than 200,000 online votes were cast.

The day Clinton announced the winning song, in a video send-up of the finale of the HBO series "The Sopranos," her website got more hits – some half a million – than it did the day of her candidacy announcement.

When CNN and YouTube asked the Democratic presidential candidates to prepare a 30-second video for their July 23 debate in South Carolina, Clinton held another contest, asking supporters to make one for her. The winning clip, by an aspiring Los Angeles filmmaker, aired during the debate. The runners-up were posted on her website.

The campaign of Illinois Senator Obama (D) has twice offered donors of as little as $5 a chance to win an intimate dinner with the Illinois senator. The two "Dinner with Barack" events, one in Washington, D.C., and the other in New Hampshire, have brought in thousands of donations, the campaign reports.

Obama's campaign chose not to follow the "winner at random" model, and instead opted to select the winners based on their personal stories.

"The goal was to pull together a group of people who would not otherwise have dinner," says spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "For example, [at] the first dinner we had a miner from Nevada, a student from Georgia, a mother and wife of a soldier in Iraq from Louisiana, and a food bank worker from New York City."

The contest generated not just money, but hometown news coverage. "What's better than a date with Tad Hamilton?" began an article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, about the Nevada miner who joined the three other winners and the candidate at a Washington steakhouse. "How about dinner with Barack Obama?"

The contests offer ordinary supporters a spell of fame or face-time, and the candidates a chance to show off their folksy side.

Obama's four dinner guests in July, who donated $5 to $25, "got the kind of personal time with Barack that other politicians reserve for the wealthy and powerful," David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, said in an e-mail to supporters. "The conversation covered topics ranging from the war in Iraq to student loans to poverty. But they also talked about cartoons, YouTube, and teaching kids to ride bikes."

Sometimes it's a town that gets its moment in the sun: Democratic candidate John Edwards ran an online contest through Eventful.com to see which town could lobby the hardest for a campaign visit. The residents of Columbus, Ky., population 229, won, and will play host to the former North Carolina senator on Oct. 4, when he holds a town-hall event there.

Some of the contests open themselves up to parody – as former Gov. Mitt Romney did when he launched a contest to create his next campaign ad. Hundreds of people submitted videos, and the campaign whittled the field down to nine, with the public selecting a winner. Slate.com chose to create a spoof ad, combining "Band of Brothers" with the Five Brothers – Romney's five sons. But the Romney boys played along, and embraced the spoof, linking to it from their blog.

In the end, it's all about buzz – and for Romney, a chance to show he could take a joke. But it's also about "crowd-sourcing," as in outsourcing to a crowd. After all, why spend money and time making campaign videos when your supporters will compete to do it for you – for free.

• Staff writer Ariel Sabar contributed to this report.

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