Inside the Republican National Committee's first-ever Tech Summit.

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Feb. 13 2009 7:34 PM

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"To our friends on the 'Net, what's up!" Michael Steele is waving at a tiny video camera at the National Republican Club on Capitol Hill. It's the Republican Party's first-ever Tech Summit—a gathering of party leaders, wonks, and tech gurus—and the idea of a simulcast must feel rather exciting.

When the mugging is over, the RNC chairman outlines the Steele Doctrine: "If we haven't done it, let's do it. If we haven't thought of it, think about it. … Don't just think outside the box—I hate that phrase anyway—take it someplace the box hasn't even reached yet."

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All of which might sound like hollow rhetoric, if it weren't for the box-busting nature of the event itself: The summit might be the most un-Republican thing the Republican Party has ever done.

Just imagine what a Republican Tech Summit would have looked like circa 2003. Invitations printed on stationery, sealed with wax, and sent to select party members. Highly paid experts invited to talk about Web 2.0. Catered, obviously. And planned so far in advance that by the time it rolls around, the technology in question is obsolete.

The scene on Friday couldn't have been more different. To call it hastily arranged would be an understatement. The RNC only announced it on Monday, giving participants two days to RSVP and four to prepare presentations. At the same time, organizers made the uncharacteristic decision to open it to the public: Anyone could show up and speak. And while some party leaders might be embarrassed by how badly Republicans lag in the Web race, Steele is broadcasting it to the world. "It's more transparent than the stimulus package," says Cyrus Krohn, the RNC's eCampaign director (and a former Slate publisher).

"There are two things that will get you kicked off the team," Steele says. (No idle threat—fired RNC staffers spent the day clearing out their offices.) "One is to say, We've always done it this way." The other is to reject an idea because it's never been done before. In either case, he says, "I don't want to have anything to do with you."

Ask and ye shall receive. The summit proceeds much like a Quaker meeting, but nerdier. "If anyone wants to speak, please get in line," says RNC transition co-chair Saul Anuzis. A few dozen people make presentations throughout the day. But most—about 250 people, plus another 800 watching online—are there to listen.

Many ideas focus on a new technology or gadget or software. A woman named Carrie Pickett says Republicans should get hip to Snapstream, a program that lets you flag and record anything that appears on TV, like Google news alerts for video. So anytime a candidate is mentioned, they automatically have the footage.