(CNN) — When Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis decided to throw his hat in the ring to head the Republican Party, he announced his intentions on an unlikely forum: Twitter.
Not too long ago, the social networking Web site most popular among teenagers and 20-somethings was probably the last place you would expect to find a candidate for the Republican National Committee chairmanship.
But then Barack Obama’s presidential campaign appeared to revolutionize the way technology could be integrated into every facet of a campaign — from fundraising to media outreach to voter mobilization.
The result was a Democratic Party that outpaced its rival in nearly every measure — in the process revealing how detrimental the GOP’s apparent lack of tech fluency proved to be on Election Day.
The Republican Party is playing catch-up, hoping to compete with Democrats in the next two pivotal election cycles.
“It would be suicide for the Republican Party and conservatives to not aggressively embrace technology,” said Matt Lewis, a writer for the conservative Web site Townhall.com. “The world is dramatically changing in the way people get their information and the way they communicate — the party needs to change with it.”
The battle for the future of the party is playing out in the unexpectedly competitive race for the chairmanship of the RNC — which faces the task of rebuilding the party’s grass-roots infrastructure and voter outreach programs ahead of the 2010 midterm elections.
In addition to Anuzis, five other candidates already have declared their intention to seek the chairmanship: former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, current RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, former Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chip Saltsman and former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele.
The race decided by the 168 RNC committee members used to be determined in the proverbial smoke-filled room — behind closed doors and far from the average conservative activist.
But in a sign of how technology already has transformed the fundamental dynamics of the party, each of the six candidates appears to be campaigning as if the job were a popularly elected office — unveiling sleek Web sites, circulating e-mail pitches to supporters and holding conference calls with members of the media and conservative bloggers.
It’s a process political observers note is similar to the one that presaged former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s ascension to the Democratic chairmanship in 2005 — a tenure marked largely by advances in how that party adopted technology to strengthen its outreach across states where Democrats hadn’t been competitive.
“Like in ’05, bloggers see this as a symbolic but important step toward taking the party back from the insiders who have been messing things up,” Lewis said. “Conservative bloggers are for the first time having a voice and influencing the debate. This has led to more transparency.”
The heavy influence of online activists, conservative bloggers and young Republicans disheartened that Obama resoundingly won their age demographic has resulted in a race for the GOP chairmanship largely revolving around who’s best positioned to bolster the party’s tech proficiency.
The six declared candidates all keep active on Twitter, along with Facebook and a host of other sites, seemingly caught in an at-times comedic contest of who possesses the most online bona fides.
It’s a clear sign the candidates know that the party is in need of a technology overhaul, said Patrick Ruffini, an online Republican strategist and veteran of President Bush’s 2000 campaign and the RNC.
But Ruffini said the mere fact that RNC candidates use social media doesn’t necessarily mean they are prepared to integrate it into every corner of the party.
“The Internet is not just blogs and Twitter,” he recently said on the blog “The Next Right.” “New media is a big world. … The hard part is integrating new media in everything the organization does, using it to transform volunteer recruitment or open a new eight- and nine-figure revenue stream. Those are the big challenges the next RNC chairman needs to be worrying about.”
Ruffini, along with other conservative activists, is the author of “Rebuild the Party,” an online manifesto and road map of sorts he believes the GOP needs to follow if it hopes to stay competitive with Democrats.
The No. 1 priority of the 10-point plan is a full-scale embrace of the Internet at the grass-roots level — a model Obama’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee implemented so successfully in 2008.
So far, three RNC candidates formally have endorsed the plan — Anuzis, Saltsman and Blackwell — but Ruffini said he hopes all of them will adopt the general goal.
“We need to create a culture in which we think about these things,” Ruffini told CNN. “It’s going to be the most important issue organizationally going forward.”