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Dean seeks to convert Net savvy into votes

"From Mousepads to Shoeleather," the campaign of Howard Dean calls its effort to transform its technological breakthroughs into volunteers and actual votes for the Democratic presidential candidate.

Turning a "Webhead" into a voter is a critical challenge, particularly in Iowa, which holds its precinct caucuses in less than a month. Organizational efficiency is essential in this process, and that means driving people to meetings on a cold January night, making sure they wait for hours as the caucus process unfolds, and knowing what to do to win delegates for a candidate. It is a prosaic, old-school kind of democracy -- the antithesis of cybersurfing from a living room or an Internet cafe.

In late November, 1,400 Dean supporters registered for six-hour training sessions, billed as "organizing summits," in 13 cities across the United States, a step in trying to meld a disparate, irregular army of Dean partisans into a political machine.

Dean's campaign has revolutionized the art of fund-raising with its success, using the Internet to raise millions in contributions. Less clear, however, is the success of Dean's campaign in using the Internet as an organizing tool. In Iowa and New Hampshire, sites of the first two delegate-selection contests, the campaign has relied primarily on traditional shoe-leather methods, using paid field staffs, phones, and the Postal Service to reach and identify Dean voters. These voters will be contacted and "pulled" to the polls as part of a get-out-the-vote operation on caucus and primary days next month.

The Dean for America website is loaded with data that measure the activity of individuals who sign up to support the former Vermont governor.

On the home page, an entry updated daily indicated late last week that 538,698 had "joined" the Dean campaign via the website. Through November, the number increased an average of 1,041 per day. In December, the figure has risen an average of 1,449 daily, boosted by a one-day spike of 7,220 new entries posted on Dec. 9, the day former vice president Al Gore endorsed Dean.

In a November dry run of the interactive capabilities of the campaign, Dean invited supporters to decide whether he should opt out of public financing (thereby freeing the campaign from spending caps). About 105,000 of the 600,000 who were contacted took part in the plebiscite, the campaign said. That's about an 18 percent response.

"The Internet has bolstered our organization in Iowa," said Sarah Leonard, Dean spokeswoman in Iowa. "People who have never been involved before learn about governor Dean online, and through Meetup get in touch with our campaign staff to become involved in traditional organizing activities."

Another link, which is updated continually, touted 158,878 who have signed up for the monthly "Meetups" of "Dean Supporters Worldwide." A small fraction actually attend the meetings in any given month, however. The campaign said 942 Meetups were held Dec. 3. But based on campaign and news reports, the average attendance was fewer than 20 people per meeting, about 18,000 total. In Iowa, a team of Chicago Tribune reporters checked three Meetups. One event that was supposed to be held in a rural county never occurred; a dozen people attended a session in Ames, the home of Iowa State University; and about 25 showed up for a session at the campaign's statewide headquarters in Des Moines, the newspaper reported.

Leonard said she did not know the total attendance for the Iowa Meetups that day, but said they varied in size, the largest with about 150 in Iowa City, which is the site of the University of Iowa.

A third home page statistic, also updated automatically, indicated that as of late last week, 41,670 had taken the extra step online and "pledged to attend their primary or caucus." That's about 8 percent of the number of individuals who have "joined" via the Web page.

More than a quarter of those who have used the Internet to pledge to vote are concentrated in just three states -- California, New York, and Washington -- according to a running tally posted on a linked page.

In the earliest voting states, few Dean supporters have used the Internet to pledge a vote. As of late last week, only 692 from New Hampshire and 589 in Iowa had pledged online. That's a tiny fraction of Dean voters already identified by the campaign using old-fashioned methods.

In the potentially crucial Feb. 3 contests, the number of online vote pledges is modest at best: New Mexico, 1,308; Arizona, 903; Missouri, 651; Oklahoma, 400; South Carolina, 359; North Dakota, 224; Delaware, 93.

"We don't use technology just because we're fascinated with technology," said Karen Hicks, director of the Dean campaign in New Hampshire. "We use technology because it's a way to support our organizing and it helps us bring people and money together, and that's when you start to create power."

Meetup and the Internet, Hicks said, "are helpful in areas where we don't have traditional paid organizers on the ground. They organize themselves; it's the first time I've seen that."

Hicks, a veteran operative who served as political director of Jeanne Shaheen's campaigns for governor of New Hampshire and the US Senate, said the online contacts provide leads for the campaign's 45 paid operatives on the ground in the Granite State. They, in turn, enter voter names, contact information, and codes ("1" is a certain Dean voter) into a massive database.

Some independent observers told the Globe they believe Dean's New Hampshire organization may be the most sophisticated in the history of the first-in-the-nation primary. The intense ground effort is clearly a factor in polls that indicate that Dean is blowing away the rest of the field there.

Iowa is different. Dean has pulled ahead of Representative Richard A. Gephardt in recent polls. The Missourian, who won Iowa in his failed 1988 presidential bid, is in a pivotal struggle there now with Dean. The campaigns are chasing potential caucus-goers one at a time.

There are no casual voters in the Iowa caucuses. They cannot drop in for a few minutes any time of the day and cast a secret ballot. It is a ritual for hard-core party activists and, as the Dean campaign hopes, the newly motivated.

The kickoff caucuses require registered Democrats to attend meetings at 1,997 precincts at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 19. They may have to stay for hours as participants discuss and openly declare their support for one of the candidates by banding into groups that are then counted.

Steve Murphy, Gephardt's campaign manager, contends the Internet will not be much help to Dean in the Hawkeye State.

"The Internet has become a fabulous fund-raising operation for Dean, but it is not transferable to field operations," he said.

Murphy called the Dean campaign "energetic with significant momentum," but said "Iowa is simply not Dean's demographic," referring to Dean supporters, many of whom are young, urban, and well educated. "The participants are older, more blue collar, and more rural," Murphy said.

The Dean campaign is using its website to seek 5,000 volunteers to travel to Iowa and 6,000 to New Hampshire in the run-up to the early contests. On Dec. 11, Dean's campaign claimed "more than 3,500 people from 47 states have already signed up" for Iowa, the Associated Press reported.

But the Globe's monitoring last month of the campaign website, which automatically updated its tally as volunteers logged in, indicated the effort was on a pace to reach perhaps one-third of its stated goal for the two states.

After a fast start, the number of volunteer signups had slowed to a trickle -- from an average of 25 sign-ups a day early last month to eight per day before Nov. 26. That was when the running tally, which was a combined 1,973 for the two states when last checked by the Globe, was abruptly removed from the campaign website.

Leonard, the spokeswoman for Dean in Iowa, said she "checked with our staff people in charge of the volunteer initiative, and it is true, 3,500 people have pledged to come to Iowa during the final weeks at their own expense."

She said the numbers were removed from the site while the system was being upgraded and the information "personalized." Leonard said the campaign plans to return the tally to the site, possibly by early this week.

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