Holly RobichaudTAMPA, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)–Since resigning as governor of Alaska in July, Sarah Palin has avoided the legacy (newspapers and network news) media. But she’s managed to remain front-page news through Facebook, the social networking site she used to associate "death panels" with proposed health care reforms supported by President Obama.

With a laptop computer, an Internet connection and a voice that resonates with her core constituents, she has built a formidable online following second only to Obama.

Palin had just over 886,000 Facebook friends when Women’s eNews checked recently. Palin’s running mate, Sen. John McCain, was far behind with 520,000 friends. Obama’s "friends" numbered more than 6.7 million.

It’s a lesson for all would-be activists and candidates, and Republican women are quickly catching on if the most recent meeting of the National Federation of Republican Women Convention offers any guide.

Palin’s experiences, said Lisa Ziriax, the federation’s communications director, are a "great example of how to use evolving tools to get your message out . . . It is the future and it’s already here."

The federation’s biannual convention, held Sept. 10 to 13, drew a roster of party leaders that included Chairman of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele, Florida Governor Charlie Crist and chair of the National Black Republican Association Frances Rice.

Boosting Use of Internet

But while speakers tackled Obama’s proposed health care reforms, the gathering’s core activity–running "campaign schools" and other workshops for Republican women–often focused on boosting the use of the Internet and social networking sites in political stagecraft.

"Organization on the Internet is a must," said Ziriax. "Also, in the past you had to have a lot of funds available for television and newspaper advertising. Now, with a bit of tech savvy, individuals and campaigns can gain real exposure via the Internet."

There are currently four Republican female senators and 17 representatives in the U.S. Congress, according to the federation. At the state level, there are four female Republican governors, two lieutenant governors, three secretaries of state and two state treasurers

The National Federation of Republican Women, headquartered in Alexandria, Va., was founded in 1938 to encourage women’s involvement in politics, promote GOP party loyalty, foster education on the issues and support Republican candidates at the local, state and federal levels.

The group raises funds to support a variety of programs, including the Mamie Eisenhower Library Project, which provides books to schools and libraries. It also provides annual student scholarships in political science.

Campaign Schools

One of its major activities, since 1978, is running one- or two-day campaign schools to help Republican women win office. It currently runs about five such programs each year, tailoring each curriculum to the needs of about 50 participants.

Fundraising, voter turnout and media management are perennial topics. Now, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and cellular phone texting systems are quickly gaining ground with instructors such as Holly Robichaud, a political strategist from Massachusetts who has run federation campaign schools for the past six years.

"Does social networking or a Web site win a campaign?" said Robichaud. "No, but it does have tangible benefits." Among those benefits: reaching a broader audience at minimal expense. It also helps candidates to track followers, either as registered "friends" on Facebook or Twitter or by visitors on a Web site or blog.

Internet technology has also changed the way the federation handles one of its most basic functions: running phone trees to build grassroots support for issues and candidates.

During the Reagan era, the group’s president would initiate a call to the phone tree leaders and from there the message would gradually spread, as fast or slowly as callers’ fingers could do the dialing. Now, the federation reaches its national membership almost instantly, via e-mail alerts.

Juliette Terzieff is a freelance writer currently based in Tampa, Fla. She has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.

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For more information:

National Federation of Republican Women

Republican women: A minority in a minority

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