WASHINGTON – Gearing up for the new law banning "soft money" campaign contributions, political parties are looking to the Internet to fill in the financial gaps.
The recently passed congressional ban, part of a sweeping campaign finance reform bill the president is expected to sign soon, will go into effect after this fall's election, forcing fund-raisers to have a larger number of smaller donations.
"As direct marketers, as old-economy companies move more toward using the Internet to bring buyers into their world, so too will the political parties and so too will the Republican Party," Republican National Committee spokesman Kevin Sheridan said.
Direct mail and telephone solicitations are the traditional tools that Republicans and Democrats have relied on to solicit money in large-scale drives.
The World Wide Web will allow campaign heads to collect a lot of money on the fast and cheap. It has already helped candidates like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — who ran in the presidential primaries in 2000 — to find a lot of funding quickly.
And where there is a lot of money involved, so is the Federal Elections Commission, which must decide what Internet activities are covered by campaign law.
FEC Chairman David Mason said some aspects of political activity clearly fall under the commission's authority, such as raising money. But people sending political e-mails and engaging in other activity from their home computers shouldn't be regulated, he said.
"Between those two poles are a lot of room," said Mason, a Republican. "The FEC is trying to decide how much ground do we declare that we're absolutely not going to touch."
They will have to come up with rules as the parties figure out how to develop better Web sites and e-mail chains to reach many more potential donors at a cheaper cost than through the old phone and mail system. The parties are also learning how the Net will allow for grass-roots campaigning with a community of supporters.
On Monday, RNC Chairman Marc Racicot announced a beefed-up party Web site that he said would help with grass-roots organizing and possibly fund raising.
Outside RNC headquarters, Democratic operatives handed out fliers accusing Republicans of copying the Democrats' new Web site introduced last month.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said the key to party-building will rest on the ability to electronically tailor messages to potential donors' personal interests and issues.
"When you first come into our Web site, you have to fill out a survey: 'Here are the five, six key issues I care about.' Then we have a communication with you about what you want to talk about," he said.
"Then you, of course, always ask for an appeal. Like people who have signed up and communicated with us — they will get appeals from us on a regular basis asking them to support us."
The DNC site has a "tell a friend" feature that lets supporters provide the e-mail addresses of six friends.
The Web sites let donors use credit cards to make contributions, much like making a purchase online. But the parties are in the relatively early stages.
The DNC, for example, is replacing its antiquated computers with a state-of-the-art system that will let it develop sophisticated donor lists.
The RNC's Sheridan said Internet contributions accounted for only a small share of the $22 million raised in January and February. Direct mail and phone banks take in far more.
"Quite frankly our donor base is an older donor base," he said. "They'll get more Internet savvy over time, but right now it's not the case."
The Internet also allows the parties to encourage mass e-mailing campaigns to the other side on key issues. That doesn't always ensure the message will get there, however.
The DNC recently started an e-mail campaign against President Bush's proposed budget, urging Democrats to e-mail a form letter to the White House. The White House blocked hundreds of the e-mails from getting through, a Democratic official said.
The White House has an "anti-spam" system that cuts off e-mails coming from the same address after a certain number are received, in case they contain a virus or could overload the system, spokeswoman Anne Womack said.
Organizations can alert the White House to the campaign and it can take steps to let the e-mails come through, she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.