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Candidates flock to Googleplex

In a visit earlier this year to the Googleplex, the WiFi-connected, eco-friendly headquarters of Google, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., called the company "the best place to work in America."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who stopped by in May, said that Googlers, as Google's more than 12,000 employees are known, are "the future of this nation."

The Googlers, for their part, are used to the attention from presidential candidates eager to add a hip, online-savvy, we-get-it aspect to their resumes, as well as to wrap themselves in the aura of one of the nation's great business success stories.

Besides Clinton and McCain, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a possible independent candidate, have come to Mountain View to take a closer look at a corporate culture that is the epitome of Silicon Valley self-confidence and innovation.

Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive, called the question-and-answer sessions "a job interview with the American people."

"And you're also sort of interviewing with Google," Schmidt told McCain at a packed town hall meeting. "It's hard to get a job at Google."

Access to visiting politicians is typically limited in the tech world to corporate executives, in private meetings. Not so at Google, where the town hall meetings are open to all employees and posted later on the Internet, on Google-owned YouTube.

The candidates learn about products such as Google Earth, a satellite imaging program; get an introduction to what's referred to as the company's Googley culture; and discuss a wide range of topics (atheism, Russian relations, Internet access in Africa) in hour-long sessions that can seem a long way from Iowa and New Hampshire.

The visits are a strategic move for Google, which has increased its presence in Washington in the past year and shown signs of increasing political sophistication. Known as a left-leaning company—Googlers donated overwhelmingly to Democrats in the 2004 elections—it formed Google NetPAC last fall and has given to Republicans, including Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and John Sununu of New Hampshire.

In March, it co-sponsored the annual Politics Online conference of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet and presented a workshop, "Google on the Campaign Trail," to online political operatives. To publicize its policy positions, it launched the Google Public Policy Blog last month.

For Google, the visits are an opportunity to let politicians know of its interests, which include Net neutrality—the principle of Internet service providers treating all Web sites equally—and immigration laws that would allow more skilled workers into the United States.

For candidates, a Google stop is part of the obligatory Silicon Valley tour. But even in the Valley, birthplace of many prominent high-tech companies and home to an affluent voting bloc, the company holds a special symbolism.

Google's headquarters, about 30 miles south of San Francisco, is really more like UC-Google, an extension of California's college campuses. Googlers are mostly in their 20s and 30s, some sporting T-shirts, cargo shorts and flip-flops at work, many with their bicycles and dogs (pets are allowed on campus) in tow.

"Google has become a symbolic firm, as GM might have been in the 1930s and 1940s and IBM in the 1950s and '60s. ... They're about sharing. Being open. Transparency. How that will transform politics as we know it, we'll have to see," said Fred Turner, author of "From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism" and an assistant professor at Stanford University.

"A visit to Google, in a way, is like stopping by the Internet of today. When you visit Google, you're respecting that sensibility and showing your alliance with it."

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