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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 January, 2004, 05:54 GMT
Internet insurgent Howard Dean

By Kevin Anderson
BBC News Online in Washington

In January 2003, Howard Dean's campaign only had $157,000 in the bank, seven members on staff and little name recognition.

Howard Dean at a campaign house party
Howard Dean has used the internet to power his grassroots campaign
A year later Mr Dean has broken Bill Clinton's fund-raising records for a Democratic candidate, has an army of energised supporters and has the lead in the race for his party's presidential nomination.

What changed? Howard Dean discovered the internet.

With the help of his net-savvy campaign manager Joe Trippi, Howard Dean is revolutionising American politics.

Open source politics

The internet has played an increasing role in the elections over the last eight years.

Wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura used e-mail to fuel his insurgent candidacy, and maverick John McCain raised $2m online after his victory over George Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary.

But it is Howard Dean and his campaign manager who have used the internet to vault out of obscurity and into the lead over several more well-known opponents.

Mr Trippi quit university in 1979 to work for Ted Kennedy's presidential campaign and has never completely got politics out of his blood since.

He has worked for the presidential campaigns of Walter Mondale, Gary Hart and Dick Gephardt.

But burned out in the presidential political pressure cooker, he found sanctuary in Silicon Valley as a marketing consultant for internet companies.

He worked for a Linux start-up called Progeny and was amazed at how a global grassroots network of programmers could develop an operating system that could give Bill Gates nightmares.

He wondered if the revolutionary collaborative network that built Linux held lessons that could be applied to politics


While still out in Silicon Valley, Mr Trippi, like so many other internet users, became hooked on blogs, short for weblogs.

President Bush
President Bush has $99m in the bank for his re-election campaign
Political bloggers were talking about how former Vermont Governor Howard Dean might be running for president.

After Mr Trippi joined the Dean campaign, he noticed that bloggers were talking about trying to organise using a site called Meetup.com.

The site has been likened to a cross between political organising and online dating.

"It was designed to let neighbours find each other," said Myles Weissleder, vice-president of communications for Meetup.com.

"The internet is the greatest network of people in the world," he said.

But until Meetup.com, while people might be chatting to each other around the world, the internet was failing to bring people together who lived across the across the street from one another.

At the beginning of 2003, William Finkel of Meetup.com decided to set up groups for the campaigns of Howard Dean, John Edwards and John Kerry because their campaigns were generating buzz in political blogs.

Riding a wave of anti-war sentiment, Howard Dean's blog-driven buzz turned into a roar, and Meetup gave his campaign a way to turn his virtual support into a real political force.

On 2 March 2003, an overflow crowd mobbed Mr Dean at a Meetup in New York City. "It was a watershed moment," Mr Finkel said.

Small money

When supporters come to Meetup.com, they can leave their e-mail address.

The Dean campaigns - as well as the campaigns of John Kerry, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich and Wesley Clark - pay Meetup for a weekly data dump of all those e-mail addresses, Mr Weissleder says.

"And those e-mail addresses equate to fund-raising dollars," he adds.

These lists and a broader online network of supporters have allowed Dean to raise millions from thousands of small donors.

Carol Darr worked on the campaigns of Jimmy Carter in 1980, Michael Dukakis in 1988 and with the Democratic Party for Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992.

She watched as big money donations came to dominate US presidential politics.

Howard Dean
Mr Dean's passionate opposition to the war caught bloggers' attention

President Bush has raised fund-raising to a high art with his network of Pioneers and Rangers, committed to raising up to $200,000 each for the campaign, she said.

And this money comes at a big trade off, she adds, usually coming from people connected to industries with an interest in the political system.

"Generally, the reason why they give money is to get something back," she said.

With the internet, small donors are fuelling the campaigns like never before, said Ms Darr, who is now the director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.

"This is the first time that anyone has successfully shown that they can raise enough money on Internet to make them a competitive candidate," she said.

The internet through Meetup, blogs and discussion groups is bringing people into the political system, people who have never been involved before, Ms Darr said.

"I am truly excited at the prospect at what it might mean to reinvigorate" the American political system, she said.

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