The world of political advertising once seemed so simple, so easily navigable as campaigns used mainstream media to get out their message.

But in this presidential race, the margins and the mainstream are overlapping, with candidates and their supporters looking to new media - really new media - to woo key voting blocs.

They're getting a life in the Second Life virtual world, where McCain/Palin boosters are promoting the ticket at the Straight Talk Cafe.

They're upping their game by advertising in nine Xbox games, including Madden NFL 09 and NASCAR 09, where Barack Obama's vote-early message is prominent.

Behind it all is a marriage of electronic wizardry and the Internet, whose ability to connect people in disparate locations, gather information about them, and feed them fresh images may signal the future of audience targeting.

Take the Xbox games. The titles in which Democrat Obama is advertising - the company making the ads said Obama was the only candidate doing so - are especially popular with males ages 18 to 36, an important demographic group for him.

More precisely, the campaign hopes to attract those young men in 10 battleground states, Ohio and Florida among them, that have early voting. The ads will appear until election eve Monday.

In the Need for Speed Carbon game, a car drives past a billboard bearing a picture of Obama and the text "Early Voting has begun. VoteforChange.com." The car passes it quickly, but not too quickly.

"This is just another example of our campaign breaking down barriers," said Sean Smith, a spokesman for Obama in Pennsylvania. "There's been a surge of young people who registered to vote and [got] involved for the very first time. We believe that most of those voters are supporting Sen. Obama, and we view this as an innovative way to reach them."

The mystery, even to grizzled young gamers, may be

how

the ads get there.

In-game advertising companies, such as Microsoft's Massive, team up with game publishers, such as Electronic Arts, said Ian Ali, national sales manager for Massive.

Massive, which the Obama campaign used, works with Electronic Arts as a game is being developed to include coding for advertisements that could be on billboards or bus benches, vending machines or race cars.

In a fixed ad, the promotion is permanently embedded in the game's coding. But that would not be of much use to political candidates like Obama, who did not know until the summer that he would be the Democratic nominee.

So the campaign signed up for a dynamic ad, designed to be fed into a game played on a computer or an Xbox console connected to the Internet.

Once an Xbox-Internet connection is made, Massive's server detects what the gamer is playing, his location, and the time of day he is playing. Using that information, Massive sends back the appropriate advertisement.

If the gamer is in Brooklyn, the ad is in English, Ali said. If he's in Berlin, it's in German. If it's noon, he may get a lunchtime promo for McDonald's. If he's in one of 10 battleground states, it may be an Obama ad.

Ali said Massive's first in-game ad campaign was for Coca-Cola in 2005. Dynamic ads are a newer phenomenon, about 18 months old.

Like Obama, Republican nominee John McCain also is using the Internet, though in platforms that are now electronically middle-aged.

"We have a whole e-campaign devoted to pushing the campaign through Web ads we set up through YouTube and other Internet sites," said Peter Feldman, a McCain campaign spokesman.

The candidate's Web site, JohnMcCain.com, touts blogs, a Facebook page, and a social-networking feature.

In Second Life, a 3-D interactive world where on-screen avatars represent computer users, there are no official campaign sites.

Instead, the candidates' supporters have organized virtual groups such as the Republican Party of SL or Americans for Obama and virtual sites such as the Straight Talk Cafe or the Obama/Biden Lounge and Unofficial HQ.

The Straight Talk Cafe sports billboards of McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. This and other Second Life sites have candidate lawn signs avatars can plant, as well as virtual T-shirts and other campaign paraphernalia.

An avatar representing a 33-year-old white Oregon mother of five children was walking around the Straight Talk Cafe recently, learning about McCain and Palin. (Second Life users go by virtual names and hesitate to reveal their real names.)

Through a text chat, she described herself as "an independent conservative with strong libertarian leanings." She said she supported Texas Rep. Ron Paul in the Republican primary and was having trouble shifting her allegiance to McCain.

"I really like Palin," she said. "I think she is the most un-Washington candidate."

The woman said she read about Second Life and decided to visit a McCain site on it.

Also at the Straight Talk Cafe was a 32-year-old British-Asian government policy adviser in the United Kingdom.

"I like to hear what Americans think about the election firsthand," he said. "I can actually learn a bit more than I can by reading the New York Times or watching CNN. It helps me understand what American voters actually are thinking."

Sometimes, sites not directly connected with a candidate host political events. Recently, Nancy Blake's Pub in Second Life invited its members, no matter their political preference, to a politics chat.

Following the conversation in a rapid-fire, real-time text is difficult, especially when the issues are as complicated as the U.S. economy, health care and energy.

But there are advantages to having heated conversations in a virtual setting, where everyone is in a different real-life locale.

"One of our members [of a Second Life group] taught me specific campaign skills I use in real life," said a female California Democratic activist.

Said a disenchanted Republican avatar, who in real life is a Florida software-support engineer in her 50s: "You can stop, take a deep breath, step back for a second before responding."

Contact staff writer Carolyn Davis at 215-854-4214 or cdavis@phillynews.com.