THREE decades after television revolutionized the art of running for president, the Internet and the multimedia home computer are bringing a new level of electronic intensity to American political campaigns.
Candidates need much more than just an E-mail address to present an image of themselves striding bravely into the cyber-vote future. Nowadays, information-packed ''home pages'' on the Internet's fast-growing World Wide Web are as trendy as flip phones. Every major GOP presidential hopeful - as well the the Republican and Democratic parties - will have such a site up and running by early fall.
As yet, cyber-stumping reaches only a small, technically sophisticated slice of the electorate. But the number of American Internet users is predicted to explode in coming months, as Prodigy, America Online, and other popular commercial computer nets provide World Wide Web links.
And whatever their numbers, computer users tend to be politically active, aware, and involved. ''A bunch of things are now merging: fast computers, multi-media, new computer-operating systems, and coming elections. People are getting really interested,'' claims Frank Tobe, a California-based political consultant.
Raising funds the traditional way - sending out pieces of direct mail pleading for cash - usually results in a response rate of 1 to 8 percent, notes Mr. Tobe, who's studying Internet issues for the American Association of Political Consultants. Doing the same thing on an electronic network gets a response from 15 to 25 percent of recipients, he claims.
''I hear a ton of organizations are planning to do a lot of [Internet] activity. If even half of them get done, there will be thousands of web sites next election cycle,'' says Tobe.
As a means of communication, electronic nets have certain inherent characteristics that may lend themselves to the needs of political campaigns. For one thing, they're cheap. Setting up a home page on the World Wide Web, a graphics-packed Internet section that is easily used with the right equipment, costs about the same as one 30-second TV spot.
For another, computer communication can provide more interaction than traditional political ads. Users can read only about issues they're interested in, for instance. They can participate in surveys - and even make cyber-donations, via use of credit cards.
World Wide Web sites also can hold vast amounts of information. Theoretically, they could proffer every speech a politician ever made - curing insomnia among computer users all across America. They could provide substantive links to voting records and legislation introduced.
Done right, political Internet sites ''should have as much content as possible,'' says Gary Chapman, director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. ''It's a great medium for the dissemination of information.''
But is much interesting information being disseminated as yet? A quick tour of major political web sites shows that Internet campaigning is still largely a thing of glossy, on-screen brochures.
You'll need a relatively fast computer, a good modem, and a connection to a network service that boasts World Wide Web connectivity to find these sites. If the weird ''http'' strings of figures don't mean anything to you, call a computer-savvy friend for help.
* Lamar Alexander Home Page. (http://www.Nashville.Net:80/~lamar). Logging in, one is greeted by an attractive background that matches the former Tennessee governor's black-and-red flannel shirts. Information is straightforward position papers and other material. Bonus fun spot: staff bios. Did you know his press secretary and communications director held similar jobs in the Oliver North Senate campaign?
* Phil Gramm Home Page. (http:www.gramm96.org). Again, heavy on position papers and bio material. Extra bonus fun spot: a link that provides all legislation Gramm has been involved with in the Senate. Apparently, the first Senate bill he ever introduced dealt with the tariffs levied on fresh cantaloupes.
* Pat Buchanan Home Page. The obligatory speeches and bio, plus lots of interesting negative material about Buchanan's fellow GOP hopefuls. Super extra fun spot: full text of the Declaration of Independence, and other historic US political documents. Also, the mottoes of all 50 states. New Mexico's is worthy of Forrest Gump: ''It grows as it goes.''
(Note: Buchanan's web address is too complicated for the Monitor to typeset. It should be reachable from http://www.vote-smart.org, an address maintained by Project Vote Smart that provides lots of good political links.)
Front-runner Bob Dole, among others, is planning an official web site this fall. Is all this enough to tear people away from playing computer golf?
On the Internet, ''people have more diverting things to do than read about Phil Gramm's childhood,'' says Stephen Bates, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Washington program, a think tank associated with Northwestern University.