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Politics at the Web-Roots

Let's amend Tip O'Neill's sage advice to political candidates and make it fit into the Net Age: "All politics is virtually local."

The Net's cybermagic lies in enabling activists to gather across the digital ether into virtual communities that can easily communicate to raise money for campaigns (by credit card), gain new followers (by "registering"), and organize virtual events (from live dialogues with candidates to opinion surveys).

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Net Age politics isn't just easier but cheaper. It lowers the costs of mailings, ads, staff, and fundraisers. It bypasses journalists, who don't always spread the information a campaign wants them to. It's the untelevision.

The latest example of a virtual political event, and perhaps the biggest, was an online poll last week by the liberal website MoveOn.org. It invited its 1.4 million members to vote for one of the nine Democratic presidential candidates in a controlled balloting. The result was a virtual "primary" with more votes than the party could muster in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Candidates who want an Internet strategy need webmasters as much as spinmeisters. The most successful Democratic candidate to tap the Net so far is Howard Dean, former Vermont governor. He's used it as a force multiplier to go from dark horse to white hot. He won the MoveOn poll with 44 percent of the vote. And he's raised more than $2 million on the Net - seven months before the Iowa caucuses. Sen. John McCain (R) was able to collect $2 million on his website only after beating George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary in the 2000 presidential race.

Too bad, though, that the Net is seen mainly as a money-raiser. While many donations are small, the Net's real power lies in being a forum for ideas, debate, and decision.