NEW YORK — Every morning, before her 5-year-old daughter wakes up, Leah Faerstein sits down at her computer in her East Village apartment and logs onto Democratic presidential candidate Wesley K. Clark's Web site.
A few years ago, Faerstein was politically indifferent and didn't own a computer. But now the stay-at-home mom spends hours a day on Clark's Web log, or blog, munching on chocolate Clark bars and chatting with other aficionados of the former NATO commander.
Recently, she was thrilled to hear Clark use a phrase about democracy that she had suggested on the blog.
"I'm not going to take the credit," said Faerstein, 50. "But I think it's osmosis. There's a back and forth between us and the campaign. I couldn't feel more connected."
Faerstein is one of hundreds of thousands of people who have turned to the Internet this year to participate in national politics, relying on a technology that is playing a central role in the way citizens are experiencing the 2004 presidential campaign.
Unlike past elections, when Web sites served more like electronic bulletin boards for candidates and causes, the Internet has evolved into a thriving marketplace of political activity, a place where the like-minded seek out new converts.
On former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's Web site, thousands of supporters post independent events they've organized to promote his candidacy, from debate-watching parties to passing out fliers outside last week's opening of the new "Lord of the Rings" movie. Clark fans used the Internet to wage a "Draft Clark" campaign, an effort the retired Army general says was pivotal in persuading him to jump into the race.
Every month, 250,000 people in hundreds of cities participate in meetups, local gatherings of political activists of every stripe who find each other online.
The result is a new form of intimacy between campaigns and their far-flung supporters, the creation of virtual political communities powered by people devoted to the candidates.
Political experts say this year's activities represent a real shift in the role of the Internet, which was used in the 2000 campaign mostly to raise money.
"One of the most important things you can do now is connect with other people like you," said Audrey Haynes, a political science professor at the University of Georgia who studies how presidential candidates communicate. "It isn't just about money; it is about creating a movement. Once you are involved at this level, it is not likely that you are going to turn your back on the candidate."
One of the most tangible results of the new wave of Internet organizing is the explosion of monthly meetups. Participants find each other through Meetup.com, an independent Web site originally designed to help connect the like-minded, whether they be Harry Potter fans or Chihuahua lovers.
In February, Dean supporters logged on to the site and organized 11 separate meetups. Two weeks ago, more than 150,000 people participated in 900 Dean meetups in 265 different cities -- dwarfing every other group on Meetup.com.
On a blustery night in Manhattan, about 60 people jammed into the basement of a dimly-lit bar on the Upper West Side, listening intently as a Dean supporter told them how they could help get the former governor on the New York ballot in March.
As people squeezed onto benches, clutching beers and glasses of wine, the organizer held up copies of petitions that needed to be signed, a different version for each congressional district. She placed the stacks in different parts of the bar and the room erupted in chaos as people sought out the right version, chatting avidly.
Paul Bennett, a 29-year-old financial analyst, said he's been coming to the Dean meetups since last spring, drawn by the desire to experience a form of political communion.
"This lets us see that we're not alone," Bennett said. "We all have the information, but it's like going to church, that feeling that there are people out there of like mind."
Stanley West, a self-employed management consultant in Los Angeles, describes himself as apolitical ("giving a politician my money -- you must be kidding") but said he's put his business on hold so he can volunteer full time as a meetup organizer. His main targets are black and Latino voters.
He formed the Los Angeles Black and Latino Alliance for Dean, and this month met with about 20 people at Frazier's Creole Cuisine on the edge of Inglewood. "Black people, for whatever reason, are not as politically involved," said West, 47, who is African American. "I've got to do it all one-on-one."
The other candidates have quickly caught on. Supporters of Clark, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards are all holding meetups.
While Democratic candidates have dominated the forum, backers of President Bush also have a presence on Meetup.com, and two weeks ago 11,000 conservatives held their first meetup in 166 cities sponsored by the Web site Townhall.com.