Two years after the dot-com boom went bust, it's finally taking off in the world of presidential politics.
While candidates have been fundraising via the Internet for some time, this year's contenders are taking the online money hunt to new levels, using technology to generate support in far more creative - and central - ways.
The new techniques are already playing a significant role in shaping the Democratic primary battle, getting more ordinary citizens involved earlier and shifting influence from big to small donors. If the trend continues, observers say it could transform the entire political process.
The leading figure in all this is former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who, through a network of websites and blogs, has cultivated a devoted Internet following that helped him beat out other Democratic contenders in last quarter's fundraising totals.
This week, Dr. Dean drew more attention when he challenged online supporters to match the amount Vice President Dick Cheney was expected to raise at a luncheon in South Carolina - and wound up nearly doubling the amount, raising more than half a million dollars in three days.
What makes Dean's effort significant, experts say, is that while Mr. Cheney's trip required several hours of his time and a costly flight on Air Force Two, Dean was able to raise his money virtually for free. And while the donors at Cheney's luncheon all contributed the maximum $2,000 allowed under new campaign finance laws, the majority of those giving to Dean were small donors - the average contribution was $52.87.
"The Internet is going to change how fundraising is done - and it's already doing so," says Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "It allows you to reach a large audience with a lot less expense.... And you're reaching a broad category of people who may not have been connected before to the campaign."
One aspect that makes the Internet particularly intriguing as a campaign tool is that, unlike television - the main political medium for a half-century - it gives people a heightened sense of connection to campaigns and even a degree of empowerment.
Dean's website is notably interactive, with supporters encouraged to offer up ideas and tips, some of which the campaign has used (the slogan "people-powered Howard" came from an online fan). And during the final hours of the last fundraising quarter - and again this week with the Cheney challenge - Dean's website featured a running total of how much the campaign had raised.
"It got to be almost like a Jerry Lewis telethon," says Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University.
This kind of online event can generate its own excitement, Ms. Darr says. And unlike direct-mail appeals, which take time and money, Internet fundraising gives candidates a relatively cheap way to capitalize immediately on external events.
Dean isn't the only candidate using the Internet - or the first. During the 2000 cycle, both former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley and Arizona Sen. John McCain raised notable sums of money online. In this cycle, other Democratic candidates are quickly adopting Dean's more innovative tactics, organizing get-togethers for supporters through the website meetup.com and posting candidate blogs.
The Internet could also prove an especially useful fundraising tool for the president, says Ms. Darr: "If ordinary people get a message in their [e-mail] inbox from the president, I think a large enough percentage of them would respond to make it worth their while."
Indeed, the Bush campaign plans to unveil its full website sometime this week.
"Online communications is a priority," says spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt, noting that "e-campaign manager" Chuck Deseo was among the first hired.
Still, Dean is the only top-tier candidate to rely so heavily on small donors, the majority of whom have contributed online (Rep. Dennis Kucinich has also generated most of his money from small donors, though he's raised far less than Dean).
The question is whether that base of support can propel Dean to the nomination. Analysts say that although the Internet is becoming more mainstream, its reach is still limited when it comes to certain groups, such as seniors and African-Americans - key voting blocs from which Dean has yet to draw much support.
And while Dean may be drawing new people into the political process, it's unclear how many will go on to participate in more old-fashioned forms of organizing, which remain key elements of any successful campaign. The power of small donors may also ultimately be limited, say analysts, particularly when pitted against Bush's fundraising prowess.
Still, the push Dean has gotten from small donors is already beginning to attract larger ones, says campaign cochair Steve Grossman - though he says the overall focus will remain on ordinary citizens. "People are now beginning to take Howard very seriously," he says. But, "we will still be a campaign that is disproportionately weighted toward small donors."