This year, for the first time, the presidential campaign is waged not just in the whistlestops and hustings of America, but also on YouTube and the viral video world.

Candidates, partisans and citizens are uploading, downloading and distributing ads, "gotcha" moments, parodies and video bites in an endless series of sliced-and-diced mutations.

If 2004 was the Year of the Blogger, 2008 is the Year of YouTube. And in the last seven days, the GOP and Democratic campaigns have stepped up their fierce online-video battle.

"Dangerous," a John McCain ad released Oct. 6, asks, "Who is Barack Obama?" It had drawn more than 200,000 views on YouTube as of Friday. Another midweek McCain video, "Ayers," seeking to tie Obama to former Weatherman Bill Ayers, had about 640,000 views.

Obama responded the next day with "Keating Economics," a 13-minute epic recalling McCain's involvement with the Keating Five savings-and-loan corruption scandal of the 1980s and 1990s; that video has had more than 1.4 million views, with the trailer alone topping 800,000.

So just who is winning the political Web wars?

Edward Lee, associate professor at Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, tracks campaign "vids" (short for "videos") and their popularity. He says the early leader on YouTube was someone who isn't in the race anymore: libertarian Ron Paul.

Since at least June, however, Obama has held a big advantage. The Obama strategy: Release as many vids as fast as possible (and you can make them in minutes, as Lee points out, to respond to events). As of September, his campaign had released more than 1,200 vids, attracting more than 62 million views, compared with McCain's 259 vids and 14.6 million views.

The most-viewed Obama vid, with more than seven million views, is of his March 18 "A More Perfect Union" speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

By midsummer, Obama vids threatened to swamp the Web. But the McCain campaign fought back, with two breakthroughs.

The first was a 30-second vid titled "Celeb," released July 30. Its famous beginning: "He's the biggest celebrity in the world." Shots flash of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, then: "But is he ready to lead?" (Both Obama's and McCain's videos, Lee observes, star Obama.) One of the most-viewed vids of the campaign, it has more than two million views, drawing viewers to other McCain vids.

The second breakthrough was Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Lee reports that Palin's nomination boosted McCain-vid interest.

"If you look at the number of views of the convention speeches," Lee says, "you see Obama out in front with 450,000 views, but Palin's speech has 250,000, with McCain's just above 100,000 and [Democrat Joseph R.] Biden's just below."

Steve Grove, head of news and politics for YouTube, says: "The candidates are creating several videos a day, on the fly, creating an ongoing dialogue, a documentary of their campaigns."

Closely parallel to the video wars is the battle to create products that can reach viewers through Facebook and other social networking sites. On Facebook, the McCain campaign offers "Pork Invaders," a video game about earmarks and pork-barrel spending, and "Campaign Cribs: Straight Talk Express," a behind-the-scenes look at McCain's road show. And then there's "the Obama app," a program for iPhones and iPods, which allows Obama recruiters to call everyone on the user's list of contacts.

As of Friday, Obama's Facebook page had more than two million supporters, McCain's over 560,000, Palin's about 425,000, and Biden's about 160,000.

YouTube's rise to political prominence began almost as soon as there was a YouTube, which launched in May 2005.

"People first realized the potential of online video in the 2006 elections, when [U.S. Sen.] George Allen was caught saying 'Macaca' to an Asian American questioner," says YouTube's Grove. Sent far and wide within hours, the "Macaca" video sprained the Virginian Republican's soon-to-be-failed reelection bid.

"The main difference this year," says blogger Ben Smith of Politico.com, "is that in 2004, online politics was largely about the elite and the media, and now it's really a mass communication tool."

Ian Bogost, videogame designer and associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says that "online video is probably the main" difference.

The real innovation is what users can do with their vids.

There's time-shifting: People who miss big speeches, debates, ads or send-ups (such as on Saturday Night Live, David Letterman, or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) can view the vid at their own convenience, not by any network's or party's schedule.

Big TV is now encouraging time-shifting, through sites such as Hulu, a partnership between NBC and Fox that lets users download and share TV shows and movies.

Most important, anyone can "mash" or manipulate vids before sharing.

"Viral e-mails are probably the most powerful online phenomenon" in this election cycle, says Smith of Politico.com.

"It doesn't matter whether you're a kid in your bedroom in Tennessee or a politician on K Street in Washington," says Grove of YouTube. "Now you can create and upload your own message. . . . It has changed the political ecology in a big way."

All this excerpting and sharing means many viewers see only the highlights, the gotcha moments. Tuesday's debate was generally a well-behaved affair, but it may be remembered chiefly for McCain's "that one" remark and Obama's "green behind the ears" riposte to charges of naivete - as if the entire debate consisted of grumpy remarks and countercharges.

Champions of online video say we're seeing a revolution, the "democraticization" of media. But there's a nagging question: Is greater access enough to produce a more informed citizenry?

"I don't think the citizens are winning . . . nor the candidates," says Bogost, of the Georgia Institute of Technology. "I think we must distinguish between making media easier to create and democratic concerns."

As Bogost wrote in a recent essay, these may be democratic means, "but whether or not they deserve to be confused with self-governance and citizenship is another matter."

Contact staff writer John Timpane at jt@phillynews.com or 215-854-4406.