At Least You Don't Have To Eat Rubber Chicken Online

Democratic Presidential hopeful Bill Bradley made headlines when midyear fund-raising reports showed him giving Vice-President Al Gore a run for the money. And in cyberspace, Bradley's fund-raising star shines even brighter. So far, he has raked in $312,000 over the Net, far more than Gore and almost as much as all other contenders combined.

Besides using his site to mobilize foot soldiers, Bradley uses pop-up promotions to steer supporters to a donors' page. The upshot: His site is luring thousands of younger, first-time givers--just the sort of nontraditional voters who are the bulwark of his campaign.

Bradley isn't the only candidate trolling for E-dollars. When the Federal Election Commission on June 6 O.K.'d federal matching funds for credit-card donations over the Internet, campaign Webmasters quickly turned mostly informational sites into money-raising machines. The sums raised so far are small, but pros say the potential is huge.

Online fund-raising is part of a broader trend that's seeing candidates embrace the Net's interactivity to connect with voters. "What TV did for the 1960 Presidential election, the Internet will do for the 2000 races," says Janice B. Griffin, National Chair of the Women's Leadership Forum, a Democratic donor network. The Republican National Committee, for example, has raised $200,000 online since 1996. By 2004, it expects the Net to generate 25% of all contributions of $100 or less.

Although Gore was slow to promote online giving, he's pedaling fast now. On Aug. 10, while the Veep spent nearly an hour online answering questions, his site repeatedly flashed "to contribute to Gore 2000 online, click here."

Online fund-raising won't replace traditional solicitations anytime soon, though. Rather, it lets candidates broaden their appeals beyond the retirees who tend to respond to direct-mail pitches. By attracting more "low-dollar" donors, online giving can potentially dilute the power of fat cats--making politics more democratic. The Net, says R. Rebecca Donatelli, chair of Hockaday Donatelli Campaign Solutions in Alexandria, Va., is "the ultimate grassroots fund-raising mechanism."

Not surprisingly, GOP Presidential aspirant Forbes, who launched his campaign on the Net, has big plans for Net-raising. On June 16, he ducked out of a dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, where contributors had paid up to $1000 a plate, to chat for 20 minutes with 400 supporters who paid $10 each to attend online.

Now, armed with demographic profiles of 25,000 registrants to his site, Forbes is mulling online fund-raising events for select groups. Rick Segal, Forbes's Net consultant, says Forbes magazine Chairman Caspar W. Weinberger, a former Defense Secretary, may host an online reception for veterans. Also on the drawing board: E-mail solicitations to doctors.

Offline popularity is no guarantee of E-donations. Exhibit A is George W. Bush, who may be shattering fund-raising records offline but so far has raised only $41,572 online. His team blames a clunky Web site and promises to make it user-friendly.

Fund-raisers are coming to love the Net because it's fast and cheap. Faced with a stack of unfulfilled pledges as the FEC's June reporting deadline loomed, GOP operative Nancy Bocskor of Arlington, Va., E-mailed reminders to prospective donors--and got half to ante up. "If I had phoned, I would've been lucky if 10% called back," she says. Now, if someone could only find a way for politicians to kiss babies online...