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The Presidential Primary Goes National

This is the time when Presidential hopefuls normally spend most of their waking hours at house parties in New Hampshire and country caf?s in Iowa. So why did retired General Wesley K. Clark schedule his first campaign stop in Fort Lauderdale? And why did former Vermont Governor Howard Dean recently hop around to Seattle, Portland, Ore., and even San Antonio, deep in the heart of Bush country?

In both cases, it's because the primary process has become nationalized. Rather than ignoring Iowa and New Hampshire, these two cyber-charged insurgents are leveraging their national buzz to help them in the early states. The idea: The national momentum boosts their standing with early primary voters. And their rising poll numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire then propel them to greater prominence. "It all feeds on itself," says Charles E. Cook Jr., editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

IT'S THE NET, STUPID. The new approach is changing not only strategies but also the agenda. There's less pandering to local interests such as Iowa's ethanol industry. "I don't believe this will be a regional [primary] campaign, decided on local issues," says Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi. Instead, the new-wave candidates are focusing their fire on the incumbent and defining themselves nationally before Bush can begin his $200 million ad blitz.

After two campaigns in which the Internet was, at best, a peripheral factor, it has become an important tool for fund-raising and organization. Effective Web strategies have helped fuel the outsider candidacies of Dean and Clark while the half-dozen Washington insiders in the race continue to run traditional, consultant-heavy campaigns.

Money and support built one mouse click at a time could help Dean or Clark avoid the fate of past insurgents such as Gary Hart. In 1984, the then-senator from Colorado stunned front-runner Walter F. Mondale in New Hampshire but couldn't compete with the Mondale machine in the delegate-rich contests that followed.

Thanks to two draft-Clark Web sites that have been collecting pledges of cash and support, the former NATO commander has an instant crew of national volunteers. And out of Dean's 400,000-strong army of volunteers, some 100,000 were recruited through -- a Web site that brings together people with common interests. Dean is using this national reach to build support in still-vital New Hampshire: Attendees at Dean meet-ups wrote letters to 50,000 undecided voters there. "It's hard to overstate the importance of what Dean is doing," says Simon B. Rosenberg of the centrist New Democratic Network. "His campaign had the insight early on to realize there were people outside of New Hampshire who could help."

Of course, predictions that the Net would revolutionize politics are nothing new. And while maverick John McCain raised millions via the Web in 2000, he couldn't overcome the organizational advantage built the old-fashioned way by Bush. Dean and Clark are shaking up the Establishment by nationalizing the primary process, but will that make them more than just political pioneers? Congressional Republicans are taking President George W. Bush's demand that they hold the line on spending seriously: They're cutting his pet projects.

With the budget bleeding red ink and the White House seeking an additional $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, the President says he won't accept other spending bills for fiscal 2004 that total more than $784.7 billion. That puts a squeeze on popular programs from highways to medical research.

But rather than target their own pork, usually compliant Hill Republicans are making the Admini-stration feel the pain. A few examples: The Senate Appropriations Committee trimmed Bush's request for higher education Pell Grants by $538 million, slashed funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, and refused to provide a dime for a Bush-backed drug-abuse-recovery program. House appropriators also cut the President's request for a favorite school-mentoring program. The real attention-getter: The House panel slashed $4 million from the White House's own operations.

Soon, the White House and Congress will cut deals, and some funds will be restored. But for now, GOP lawmakers are sending a clear message: They are not going to take big hits to their favorite programs while protecting those of a President who is slipping in the polls.

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