Low-cost fund-raising on Web aids candidates

By Charles A. Radin, Globe Staff, 2/7/2000

o to gore.com.

There you find W.L. Gore & Associates, who specialize in fluoropolymer technology and manufacturing.

Internet fund raising graphic

* Fund-raising champion Bush lags online
* McCain trying to turn primary win into cash

Try gore2000.com

That will take you to PoliticalShop.com of Kansas City, which sells Gore campaign paraphernalia. Also Bradley, Bush, and McCain campaign items. Algore.com? That link goes to PoliticalShop, too. Not an impressive on-line introduction to the candidate who once claimed to have been a father of the Internet.

But algore2000.com, the official Gore home page, also may be the jazziest Web site of the country's first major Internet presidential campaign, with offerings tailor-made to ethnic and social minorities who traditionally favor the Democratic Party.

Other candidates' sites are easier to find, and radically different in focus. Bill Bradley concentrates on organization, John McCain on fund-raising and recruitment, George W. Bush on his tax-cut proposal.

Such groping for focus and function is widespread among businesses competing on the Net, and was unremarkable in the presidential campaign until this week. Then the McCain campaign stunned political activists and outside observers alike by raising $1 million on its Web site in two days after the Arizona Republican won the New Hampshire primary.

''Oh my God! You're kidding!'' a worker for a competing campaign sputtered at week's end as word of the fund-raising spread and McCain vaulted well into the lead in Internet-based fund-raising with $2.5 million, compared with $1.6 million for Bradley, $1.1 million for Gore, and $340,000 for Bush.

Lynn Reed, who headed Clinton-Gore Internet operations in 1996 and now leads Bradley's Internet effort, said the McCain coup illustrates movement of Net-based operations from the periphery of the campaign four years ago to a central role now.

''Four years ago, I was badgering people to remember the Internet, now they are coming to me and saying it is really important to have things on the Net,'' Reed said. ''Because McCain had a good, effective Web site, and he as a candidate is very good about sending people to the Web site, when he got a unique moment, he was able to capitalize.''

Max Fose, head of Internet operations for McCain, said use of the Web site for fund-raising and recruitment undercut the belief of establishment Republicans backing Bush that even if McCain won in New Hampshire ''he couldn't turn it around fast enough to take advantage of it in South Carolina,'' site of the next closely watched Republican primary.

It would have taken at least five to 10 days to process $1 million in relatively small contributions without the Net, Fose said, and many of those who donated might not have given at all had they been required to look up addresses and write checks.

''We are finding that 39 percent of the people contributing to McCain through the Internet have never before contributed to a political campaign - ever,'' Fose said, adding that the campaign also gained 1,200 volunteers in South Carolina in the same two-day period.

Representatives of most of the candidates said that as interest in the primaries rises, candidates are focusing increasingly on visitors to their Web sites who might contribute time or money, rather than on people who are just surfing by.

''Those who sign up for Goremail are the live ones, your prospects,'' said Ben Green, director of Internet operations for Gore. ''We use a really short form'' to sign them up, which ''sets the bar really low for getting involved. ... We are starting to see a lot of success in up-selling people from Goremail to volunteering.''

Though other campaigns admired McCain's fund-raising success this week, their representatives said the phenomenon was more impressive for the magnitude by which previous standards were eclipsed, which demonstrated the effectiveness of the Net, than for the fact of the $1 million. The other major campaigns are all considerably better financed than McCain's, and have other priorities.

Because of spacing of the Republican primaries and Bush's huge 4-1 lead in fund-raising, ''McCain's challenge is to raise millions quickly,'' said Bradley strategist Reed.

''The most important thing for us, because we have this five week period'' of relatively little activity ''is to mobilize supporters in the 28 states holding primaries and caucuses between March 7 and 14,'' she said.

The move toward using Web sites primarily for fund-raising and organizing rather than general information shows candidates are recognizing, and reacting to what Tobe Berkovitz, a veteran media buyer who teaches a course in political advertising at Boston University, said is a fundamental difference between the Net and television ads.

While they share characteristics prized by politicians, specifically, that the politicians control the message and cannot be interfered with by rivals or reporters, ''the essence of the Web in this cycle is that it's targeted to people who are already interested,'' Berkovitz said. ''The commercials track you down in your living room. The Web sites you go looking for.''

Another big factor intensifying campaigners' interests in the Web is the amount of time people spend at the sites. A typical visitor to Gore's site now spends over 30 minutes there, Green said, and all the candidates say the average time visitors are exposed to the site's message is well over 10 minutes, at a tiny fraction of what it costs a campaign to communicate with TV ads.

Most of the campaigns say their Web operations have improved over the past year and are essentially set.

McCain is the exception. On Thursday, he will hold a cyber-fund-raiser, during which people nationwide will be able to send in e-mail questions, then see and hear McCain answer them over the Internet.

''We have people across the country who are trying to touch John McCain,'' Fose said. ''It is one of the key things we have to sell. If they are not going to be able to do that, this is a way for them to at least interact.''