WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- In the first significant use of an Internet "primary" to assess voter support for presidential candidates, it was no surprise that the top three finishers were former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (43.87 percent), Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio (23.93 percent) and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts (15.73 percent).
Before the online voting, MoveOn.org, the survey's sponsor, had given each of these three White House aspirants space on its Web site to make his pitch to readers -- to the exclusion of the other candidates -- because they had also led in a preliminary poll.
Also, the Internet site previously had focused on drumming up opposition to President Bush's invasion of Iraq, a position most conspicuously trumpeted by Mr. Dean and Mr. Kucinich. And Mr. Kerry, while voting to authorize military action, did so with sharp criticism of Mr. Bush for going ahead without specific U.N. backing.
Mr. Dean's aggressive bid to win MoveOn's endorsement fell just short of the required 50 percent stipulated by the sponsors, but his campaign nevertheless garnered a substantial windfall in national publicity and in cash contributions. His campaign manager, Joe Trippi, reported this week that he had raised more than $7 million in the previous three months, bringing his total for the year to $10 million.
In political terms, that showing has already done for the Dean campaign what a straw poll at a 1975 Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa did for Jimmy Carter. Then, the little-known former governor of Georgia led the pack with a mere 23 percent of 1,094 and obliged the political community to take him seriously. But Mr. Carter got no comparable financial windfall.
In the Internet primary last week, Mr. Dean won 139,360 votes of 317,647 cast -- a rich potential for him if these participants show up in 2004's Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire primaries and other state contests to follow.
Beyond what the Internet poll may mean for Mr. Dean's candidacy, however, is evidence that such surveys from now on will probably replace reliance on straw polls at state party dinners and conventions to gauge candidate strength. Since the Carter experience, these straw polls have proved to be very costly to state parties and more often undercut the chances of candidates who fare poorly in them than they boost those who do well -- often by packing the hall with supporters, as Mr. Carter did in Iowa in 1975.
The MoveOn primary should be a wake-up call to all the candidates that the Internet can do more for them than participating in the old straw polls. It can also be just as effective a fund-raising tool as costly direct-mail marketing, in which vendors peel off a major share of the money collected.
Another Internet tool used aggressively by Mr. Dean is Meetup.com, which boasts a Web site membership of nearly 400,000, organized according to various special interests. The operation now functions in 231 cities, arranging face-to-face meetings of Internet players to convert those interests into community action. This tool, too, can be a gold mine for mobilization of voters in the 2004 caucuses and primaries.
It may not be too much to say that a cyberspace revolution is under way in presidential politics, with Mr. Dean the first to catch the wave and other candidates ignoring it at their peril. With President Bush leaving all the Democratic hopefuls in the dust with his direct fund-raising steamroller now roaring across the country in a series of multimillion-dollar lunches and dinners, the Democrats desperately need a new means to compete.
One ingredient that seems to fire up Democratic Internet users to get involved in the presidential campaign is the level of anger and dislike these activists express toward President Bush. The Internet is a ready outlet for their strong feelings as they fire off e-mails denouncing him to anyone who will read them.
The question is whether they are just letting off steam or are aroused enough to work for the candidate of their choice and vote for that choice in the 2004 election. Mr. Dean clearly is betting that they will, and the other Democratic candidates would be foolish not to tap into this new source of political energy as well.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.