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Candidates Power Up Internet Campaigning

Underdog Howard Dean takes the lead in online organizing. But his fellow Democrats and President Bush are also getting Web-savvy.

June 15, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In 1996, cutting-edge presidential campaigns unveiled rudimentary Web sites. Four years later, some White House candidates trolled for money and tested advertising on the Internet.

Now, President Bush and the nine Democrats seeking to oust him hope to raise armies of e-mail activists and significant cash online. One challenger in particular is drawing notice for his adept use of new technology on a shoestring budget: Howard Dean.

The former Vermont governor -- though still an underdog to capture his party's nomination -- has built an unlikely dot-com insurgency that has helped raise his national profile. He encourages backers to talk up his campaign through a commercial forum known as Meet- and via online journals called "blogs" and wireless messaging networks.

Like his Democratic rivals, Dean still schmoozes deep-pocket donors personally and auditions before interest groups. But his technological links to a broader and somewhat younger base of activists helped him draw surprisingly large audiences for campaign stops in New York, Seattle and Austin, Texas.

The estimated crowd of 3,000 for Dean's appearance in Austin this month was a public show of strength the other Democratic candidates would envy at this stage. Most candidate rallies still number in the hundreds at best, and Dean aides attributed the size of the Texas gathering to Internet buzz.

Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager and a tech-savvy strategist with roots in Silicon Valley, said the Internet is allowing the campaign "to build a 50-state organization" much more cheaply and quickly than would be possible through traditional political techniques.

For all his Internet focus, Dean still plans television advertising at critical campaign moments, just as his rivals do. The Dean campaign, in fact, says it will be the first in the presidential race to run a television commercial, with an advertisement beginning Tuesday in Iowa.

Speaking directly to the camera, Dean uses the spot to criticize Bush's foreign policy and tax-cutting plans and says "too many Democrats in Washington are afraid to stand up for what we believe in."

Dean's campaign spokeswoman, Tricia Enright, said the early use of a TV ad is "an opportunity for him to speak about where he stands before the other, obviously better-funded candidates introduce themselves."

Experts say the Internet is far from supplanting TV, or even challenging its dominance. But it may soon substantially augment TV as an effective and cheap way to reach targeted audiences around the clock.

There have been other recent glimpses of the potential of online organizing. In February, one Internet group,, led a massive "virtual march" on Washington to protest the brewing war with Iraq, shutting down the Capitol's switchboards. But it is Dean's electronic effort that continues to gain the most attention.

This month, Dean supporters who had made contact through organized gatherings in dozens of cities across the country. In Washington, meeting sites included a downtown bar and the student center at George Washington University, each attracting dozens of people.

Paul McKenzie, 49, who described himself as a longtime party activist, said he admired Dean's criticism of the war in Iraq. But McKenzie got really animated when asked how he linked up with the Dean campaign. He said he tried calling Dean headquarters in Burlington, Vt., with little success. "They're just so busy that they can't react to people like me," he speculated.

The campaign Web site, though, allowed McKenzie to register his e-mail address and directed him to, which he called "a wonderful way ... to hook up with other people in D.C." He even signed up for a service called "Dean Wireless." Whipping out a Nokia cellphone, he showed a message he had received at 10 the night before.

"I'm in bed with my wife and all of a sudden my phone starts beeping, beeping," McKenzie said. The text message from the Dean campaign told him about an imminent candidate appearance on public radio.

To the average American at that hour, a mass-distributed page from a politician might have been an annoyance. But to McKenzie, it was a welcome update.

So far, at least 33,000 people have used Meetup to indicate their loyalty to Dean, who has plugged the forum relentlessly.

A spokesman for one Democratic rival gave the Dean campaign a tip of the cyber-hat.

"I'm willing to accept the fact that they've had a great deal of success in the Internet," said Erik Smith, an aide to Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. "In large part, that's because the demographic he's appealing to is an Internet-savvy one -- particularly that antiwar demographic."

But Gephardt also appears to have an aggressive Internet strategy. His Web site tends to be longer on substance than some others, and adds new information every day. Last week, it highlighted news coverage about the decision by Gephardt's daughter, Chrissy, to make public her sexual orientation as a lesbian.

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