About 300 backers of Illinois Senator Barack Obama gathered in Dallas this week to boost his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. The candidate was nowhere in sight.
He didn't need to be. The group, with no help from the Obama campaign, organized the Feb. 19 event on its own through the Web site Meetup.com.
The impromptu rally is exactly what Obama's campaign is counting on to help counter the fundraising prowess of the party's front-runner, Senator Hillary Clinton. Hearing about the event, at the Wyndham Dallas North hotel, Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe called in and someone held a cell phone to a microphone so he could address the crowd.
``Obama has some real advantages because he is fresh and he is new and he is appealing to young people,'' said Joe Trippi, who ran former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's Democratic primary campaign in 2004. Those attributes ``work particularly well in terms of Internet fundraising,'' said Fred Wertheimer, president of the Washington watchdog group Democracy 21.
Obama, 45, is relying on a grassroots effort aimed at online activists -- what political operatives call a ``netroots'' strategy -- to help him compete in a primary race that may come with an entry fee of $100 million. Clinton, 59, has already locked up many of the top Democratic business leaders and activists known as ``bundlers'' who can use their networks to gather maximum contributions from individuals.
A Million People
``A million people aren't coming to a $100-a-plate dinner tomorrow; a million people could go to the Internet tomorrow and give Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton $100,'' said Trippi, author of ``The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything.''
The stakes are higher than ever before as many presidential candidates decide to forgo the system of public financing of campaigns, and the spending limits it entails. Analysts expect each of the major party candidates eventually to raise $500 million for the November 2008 election.
Since the first fundraising reports won't be filed until April, there's little evidence so far about the effectiveness of the netroots strategy. The two most active candidates on ActBlue, a Democratic fundraising Web site, are former vice presidential nominee John Edwards, who has brought in more than $900,000, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who has raised about $286,000 on the site.
Obama is also getting help from Internet sites such as Facebook that generate enthusiasm among young people. During a stop in California this week, he asked supporters to sign up on his campaign Web site and give as little as $5 to $10.
More than 30,000 people have created profiles and started networking with supporters on Obama's site, spokesman Bill Burton said. Some 2,800 people have founded grassroots groups and 5,200 have started blogs to chronicle their experiences with the campaign.
``The best way to sustain momentum is to ensure that it's not just about you and that there are a lot of people who are invested and feel ownership,'' Obama said in an interview this month.
Clinton, who represents New York, isn't about to concede the Internet. Like Obama, she announced her interest in the race with a Web video and said almost 150,000 people signed up on her site in the first week.
Clinton also enlisted her husband, former President Bill Clinton. This week, he sent an e-mail asking for help raising $1 million in one week to showcase her grassroots support. ``Let's make this a week when we demonstrate that her campaign is strong,'' the former president said.
As of early evening Washington time last night, the appeal had raised more than $320,000, according to Clinton's Web site.
Yet Senator Clinton's position as the candidate with the strong party ties and big-bundler donor base doesn't offer an automatic appeal to Internet activists.
``If you assume that the netroots are anti-establishment, she has the most difficult case to make,'' said James Bonham, former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The power of the Internet became evident when Dean used it to bring in more than half of the $41 million he raised in 2003, Trippi said. That helped Dean become the early front-runner for the presidential nomination.
Senator John Kerry raised about $80 million on the Internet. That helped him compete with the deep pockets of President George W. Bush, who in 2000 became the first party nominee to raise $100 million for a primary campaign, thanks to big-money bundlers.
Both Bush and Kerry rejected federal funds in the 2004 primary campaign, allowing them to bypass spending limits. This time, candidates are skipping public financing altogether, which allows them to solicit the maximum $4,600 individual contribution for both the primary and general elections, almost five times the $1,000 that most candidates could get in 2000.
``The sky's the limit in terms of how much money you can spend,'' said Michael Toner, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
While Clinton has the advantage among big bundlers, Obama also has major players on his side, including movie producer David Geffen, who helped raise more than $1 million at an event this week, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Geffen touched off angry exchanges between the campaigns when he told a New York Times columnist that the Clintons lie ``with such ease.'' The Clinton campaign called for Obama to return the money Geffen raised and denounce his comments, prompting Obama's campaign to point out that the Clintons had no problem with Geffen when he was raising money for them.
The wrangling underscored just how intense the battle has become almost a year before the first votes are cast and how much is at stake by getting a fundraising edge. While Bush asked his top contributors to bring in $100,000 each in 2000, Clinton is asking hers to collect as much as $1 million.
Clinton counts top Democratic fundraisers including Wall Street financiers Hassan Nemazee and Marc Lasry among her supporters. On the West Coast, she's won over media executive Haim Saban and film producer Stephen Bing, who were two of the top three Democratic donors in 2002, before unlimited contributions to the party were banned. And she's ramping up the pressure on fundraisers quickly.
``I went in having committed to raise $100,000,'' said Heather Podesta, a Washington lobbyist who attended a Feb. 7 meeting for ``Hillraisers'' in Washington. ``I walked out and committed to raise 2 1/2 times that amount.''