Every night, before he goes to bed, Tom Campbell flips open his laptop computer and answers his e-mail. In the wired world of Silicon Valley, this is an event almost as humdrum as picking up the phone.
But Mr. Campbell is a Republican member of the US Congress where getting on the Internet is still a voyage of discovery. Even more unusual, Campbell's electronic correspondence comes from his constituents to whom he has promised a personal answer within 48 hours.
"I try to keep my answers short and I don't do any research," says Campbell who represents California's 15th Congressional District in the heart of Silicon Valley. "The point is immediate response." Every question and answer is also posted on his Web site in a unique ongoing electronic dialogue with voters that the congressman calls his "on-line town hall meeting."
Campbell may be on the cutting edge, but when it comes to politics, 1996 was the year of the Internet. By dialing into the global computer network, one could peruse everything from Bob Dole's latest speech to election night results in Oregon. In Internet-crazy California, there were 140 campaign Web sites for everything from local races to ballot propositions.
"This was the first election cycle in which the Internet had any claim to being a national medium," Joseph Dehn III, the Internet coordinator for the Libertarian Party, said at a conference here last month called "Politics On-line."
But like everything else associated with the Internet, there's still more sizzle than steak. Experts point out that even though Internet use is growing rapidly, it still reaches only a minority of the population and is skewed heavily in favor of high-income, white males.
A little more than 1 out of every 4 Americans has access to the Internet at work, school, or home, according to Bruce Bimber, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The average user has a median annual income of $55,000 to $60,000 (almost twice the national average), and about two-thirds are male and have a college education.
The impact of on-line politics on voter behavior, however, is harder to gauge. While internet users tend to be more politically active, their views are generally very mainstream, according to variety of recent surveys. "In terms of political characteristics, the Net is probably not too far from the mainstream," Mr. Bimber says.
Some 8.5 million voters were influenced by the Internet in their candidate selection, according to one study carried out by Winston Strategic Information and Wirthlin Worldwide, a market-research firm. But a survey by the Media Studies Center found that only 6 percent of the population had ever visited a political Internet site, and less than 1 percent cited it as a medium they rely on most.
Finally, the contents of much of on-line politics are not much different from what voters encounter on TV or in their mailboxes. "There are way, way too many political campaign sites that are just preaching to the converted," says Peter Grunwald, president of a new media consulting firm.
In a few notable cases, however, the Internet was more than just a sideshow. The campaign of Reform Party candidate Ross Perot, for example, conducted voting for its presidential nominee via the Internet - a political first.
SOME political activists see the greatest role for the Internet as a source of unfiltered information to educate the electorate. The California Voter Foundation, a voter-education program, set up its Web site two years ago, offering extensive data on everything from candidate biographies to campaign contributions.
California Secretary of State Bill Jones is backing legislation just introduced into the state legislature requiring electronic filing of campaign finances, including reports by lobbyists, so as to make that information immediately available to the public. He also is working on a digital signature initiative that would allow electronic verification of absentee ballots.
Representative Campbell stands out as a politician eager to use the medium, in part, because such a large portion of his electorate is on the Net. His site has been widely praised as one of the best, and most innovative, in existence.
"Campbell's really, really into this technology - he thinks this is going to be the future of campaigning in Silicon Valley," says site creator Joshua Ross, the 20-something co-founder of USWeb NetWORKERS, a firm based in Palo Alto, Calif., that has also designed many other political Web sites, including the Perot campaign site.
Campbell touts the two-way communication value of the Internet, which enables voters to be in contact with their representatives. Interestingly, his e-mail queries tend not to focus on local issues. "What I've had are global questions - how do you clean up politics? ... Should gays have the same rights as straights?" he reports.
The Internet may even change the way campaigns are financed, predicts Campbell. Using the methods now gaining acceptance for shopping and banking over the computer network, people could contribute money to campaigns electronically, he says. That idea alone might be enough to make the Internet a permanent feature of American politics.