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Dean's Internet haul required less effort

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- Of all the whistle-stops on the campaign trail to the presidency, the rubber-chicken fund-raiser is by far the least loved -- except, perhaps, by the special-interest donors who utilize it to win access to the candidate. No president has ever reminisced about his days on the hustings and called up memories of nights in hotel ballrooms with cholesterol-filled donors.

Even Richard Nixon, the father of the Committee to Re-elect the President, or CREEP, once considered passing up the 1968 campaign because he couldn't stand putting on a false smile and trying to wring dollars from the money men of American politics.

And not even the most cynical Democrat could believe that President Bush really wanted to give up a day on his ranch to press the flesh with a bunch of $2,000-per-head contributors.

So let's hope that all the presidential candidates are taking a good look at Howard Dean's Internet fund-raising operation and wondering whether there isn't an easier way to fill the coffers -- one without the ever-present odor of special interests seeking favors.

Two weeks ago, when it became known that Bush was interrupting his vacation for a Portland, Ore., fund-raising dinner with a target of $1 million, two Dean staff members sitting behind their desktop computers issued a challenge to Bush opponents around the country: Send your own dollars to Dean and try to help equal the Bush kitty.

Within a week, Dean had raked in his own $1 million, with an average donation of $50.

It's been well reported that Internet fund-raising is one of the most impressive innovations of Dean's Seabiscuit run for the presidency, proof that the former Vermont governor has formidable support. But there's been far less attention to the potential of the Internet itself to provide a cleaner, less time-consuming way for candidates to finance their campaigns.

The best counterbalance to big money in politics has always been small money. If large numbers of average Americans, drawn to candidates by the light of their policies, contributed modest amounts, they could create a gusher of support big enough to diminish the need to court wealthier donors.

Traditionally, candidates seek to appeal to those who are likely to give the maximum -- these days, $2,000 -- because it's more efficient: Why waste your efforts appealing to those who are going to give less when you can work on those who give the most?

The most powerful campaigns usually go beyond focusing on single $2,000 donors to appeal to those who can snap their fingers and pull together a crowd of $2,000 donors.

Those were, by and large, the types of people who got invited to President Clinton's Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers, and Bush's current operation functions on a similar principle.

His campaign, adopting the language of a movie western, offers fund-raisers a chance to become "Rangers" (those raising $200,000 or more) and "Pioneers" ($100,000 or more), thereby earning a special meeting with the president.

But even focusing on those likely to provide the biggest bucks requires time.

Consider what it took for Bush to get his $1 million-plus in Portland: The flight on Air Force One. The media horde. The number of hands to shake. The long meal. The speech. The staff time in courting the donors and answering their concerns. It's not only Bush who loses out because of the time devoted to fund-raising; the country suffers for having its president raising money at a time when bombings in Iraq and ballooning deficits dominate the headlines.

All it took for Dean to raise his $1 million-plus was a mouse and a keyboard.

The Internet has a farther reach than any other fund-raising method except, perhaps, a national telethon, which is impractical for reasons of cost.

And unlike direct mail, the former method of choice for reaching smaller donors, the Internet attracts people who aren't already known to campaigns -- and who don't carry any special-interest agenda.

If enough people give donations through the Internet it will lessen the pressure for candidates to schedule traditional fund-raisers, and candidates will reclaim the time for other, more productive activities.

But the changeover could be slow. Even as he was raising his $1 million over the Internet, Dean was attending fund-raisers of his own in the cities on his "Endless Summer" tour.

Is it impossible to envision that, two Augusts from now, a new president will be taking time away from his month on Lake Champlain to eat chicken with a bunch of big-money donors? No. But the people who gave him $50 this August could always send a message by continuing to give -- to someone else.

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