WASHINGTON -- The Y2K computer test for presidential candidates is fast approaching. It will occur not on New Year's Day, but exactly one month later.
The Internet has become the hot new battleground of the 2000 campaign. Democratic and Republican contenders say they've recruited thousands of supporters on the Web and generated more than $1.5 million in online contributions -- much of it through secure servers on their official campaign Web sites.
But on Feb. 1, e-campaigning could face its toughest test and greatest opportunity.
That's primary day in New Hampshire, where front-runners often get tripped up and insurgents catch fire. Capitalizing on that overnight success has often frustrated the winners, however, because traditional fund raising can take considerable time and organization.
The Internet could change all that.
"If you win New Hampshire, the real key is being ready to drink from the fire hose on the day after," explains Mike Murphy, a strategist for Sen. John McCain's Republican presidential campaign. "If you've got a Web site and a credit-card system [for contributions], $3 million to $4 million should show up very quickly."
Of course, no one knows if that prediction, like most estimates of the Internet's potential, is wildly optimistic.
"This is so unprecedented that we don't have a guidebook to map this out," says Lynn Reed, an Internet consultant to Democrat Bill Bradley's campaign.
Until now, at least, the results are far outrunning expectations.
"I don't think anybody would have expected in April that we were going to raise three-quarters of a million dollars online," Reed says of Bradley's campaign, which is setting records for online political fund raising. "There is a huge potential here for this thing to explode."
The success of online fund raising closely parallels the growth of e-commerce. Four years ago, no presidential candidates collected contributions over the Internet. This year, between 1 percent and 4 percent of campaign dollars have come in via the Web -- a small but promising share.
In the last presidential race, the typical candidate's Web site -- if there was one -- was little more than an online brochure. This time, every candidate has at least one official site.
These online headquarters are increasingly sophisticated, with eye-catching graphics and gimmicks, multiple avenues to click through and, usually, up-to-date information on the candidate's activities, speeches and supporters.
And, as Texas Gov. George W. Bush learned, these sites are more liable to be a target of unauthorized break-ins. The Bush site was disrupted by hackers last week, and aides say steps have been taken to prevent a repeat.
Webmasters for the presidential candidates concede that they're inventing the industry of online solicitation as they go along.
"We're in completely new territory," says Reed, adding that the Bradley campaign is developing a strategy for using e-mail and other forms of electronic advertising to solicit money and support.
Some techniques are becoming increasingly common. Pop-up windows urge politically minded Web visitors to make a contribution. Online stores bring in additional campaign dollars. Bush's Web site features a section for Hispanics that includes video of Bush speaking Spanish -- and a Spanish-language online contribution form.
Like the direct-mail appeal to which it's often compared, online political fund raising is particularly good at attracting small, repeat contributors whose donations can add up over the course of the campaign.
An analysis of 3,800 online contributors to the McCain campaign found that they are younger -- more than half are younger than 44 -- than the typical political donor. They may also be newcomers to political giving; one-third said they had made no campaign contribution of any kind during the previous 12 months.
On McCain's site, campaign videos (which cost almost nothing to reproduce and are given by the thousands in states like New Hampshire) are hawked for $25. T-shirts go for $15. About 1,000 people have made purchases, with the money going directly to the campaign.
Candidates are also searching for ways to lure visitors to their sites. Republican Steve Forbes has placed banner ads on financial Web sites, as well as on sites devoted to political news in key primary and caucus states. Because Forbes is largely funding his candidacy, his Web campaign is directed toward building support and mobilizing volunteers.
"In the largest sense, the Internet is providing a medium for presidential campaigns to re-engage the individual volunteer, who we haven't seen for several election cycles," says Rick Segal, the Forbes campaign Webmaster. "Big media, and the big money it requires, are occupying a larger part of our politics. That has come at the expense of grass-roots participation."
Using one of the catch phrases of the computer world, Segal says he sees the Web as a "viral marketing device" that can generate political and financial support for candidates. The idea, he said, is for supporters to reach out, via e-mail, to their personal network of friends and spread the word about their candidate.
While the political leanings of online contributors can only be inferred at the moment -- none of the campaigns have acknowledged probing into the attitudes of Internet donors -- the more anti-establishment candidates have attracted the most online money.
Democrat Bradley and Republican McCain, both of whom are appealing to independents and promoting campaign reform, have collected a much larger share of money than establishment figures like Bush and Vice President Al Gore. Bush and Gore are relying on more traditional sources that range from direct mail and telephone solicitations to $1,000-a-plate political dinners.
From a campaign's point of view, online solicitations offer several advantages.
They are instantaneous, allowing campaigns to request money from thousands of supporters with a few keystrokes. More importantly, they are inexpensive. Most campaigns pay nothing except the cost of maintaining their Web sites ($18,000 to $20,000 a month, on average).
"It's an amazing tool, just in terms of cost. The ability to raise money online is so much less expensive than any other means of raising money," said a Bush campaign aide.
Supporters who register at a candidate's Web site are likely to find themselves on the receiving end of online fund-raising appeals.
According to a McCain spokesman, about 200 donors responded to an e-mail from McCain's wife, Cindy, who asked for campaign contributions as a "birthday present" to her husband in late August.
The Bradley campaign is peddling tickets online to supporters in the New York City area, hoping to lure them to a Madison Square Garden gala next month that will feature professional sports stars.
John Aristotle Phillips, whose company has been providing software to political campaigns for the past 20 years, predicts that $20 million will be raised online during the 2000 campaign. And that is only the beginning.
"E-campaigning is really still in its infant growth stage," says Jay MacAniff, a spokesman for Phillips' company, Aristotle Co. "This is an emerging market."
The following are online fund-raising totals provided by the campaigns:
George W. Bush....114,000
Orrin G. Hatch..............55,000
*Withdrew from race.
Are you a political junkie? Here's a list of sites that should satisfy your craving. Project Vote Smart
This nonprofit, nonpartisan site is one of the best all-around sources for information on elections and issues at the national and state level, with detailed information about candidates and links to their Web pages.
This flashy site, which was launched two weeks ago, hopes to make a profit from selling political advertising by drawing an audience that wants the latest news, gossip, opinion and poll results.
Center for Responsive Politics
This is the place to follow the money. Find out who's giving to whom, who's getting soft money from the Fat Cats and who the political action committees are betting on. You'll also find a handful of searchable state political contributions databases (including Maryland's 1998 gubernatorial campaign).
White House 2000
Not much flash, but this rambling site has a fine collection of political links, including excellent academic sources. Its creator, Professor Avi Bass of Northern Illinois University, also has a sense of humor.
Democratic National Committee
Republican National Committee
Gary L. Bauer (Rep.)
Bill Bradley (Dem.)
Pat Buchanan (Ref.)
George W. Bush (Rep.)
Steve Forbes (Rep.)
Al Gore (Dem.)
Orrin G. Hatch (Rep.)
Alan L. Keyes (Rep.)
John McCain (Rep.)