NEW YORK – The Internet may be the next big thing for grassroots political campaigns, but not everyone recommends running to the Web just yet in search of a candidate.
Later this month, the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet is planning to release a report saying that political campaigns and citizens are showing more interest and ability in using the Internet as a campaign tool, but they are still a long way from mastering how to make the connections.
"People are still fumbling around in the dark," said Michael Cornfield, research director for George Washington University's institute. "This is a really complicated medium to use — it's like a Swiss army knife. It's not a television set."
But one new Web site is experimenting in the next wave of campaign organizing and has even won the gratitude of at least one outsider presidential candidate.
Meetup.com, a new, free service that gathers people together to discuss anything, anywhere, has found a niche in the campaign community and has started setting up meetings for supporters across the country to get together to organize around their candidates.
"Meetup came along because we were thinking, 'the Internet is the ultimate thing that connects people but it doesn't do anything to connect them face-to-face,'" Scott Heiferman, CEO of Meetup.com, told Foxnews.com. "How do we use new technology to reinvigorate this?"
Heiferman, who launched Meetup.com in June 2002 after deciding that he wanted to encourage more human community interaction, said the site was developed to draw people together on a variety of topics, but not necessarily politics.
"We didn't really envision [Meetup.com] would be used by major political candidates to organize political support," Heiferman said.
Vision or not, Meetup.com, which has registered about 200,000 people in 545 U.S. communities and 34 countries to talk about 740 topics and interests, has ended up creating a new outlet for political activists.
Since its launch, Meetup.com has held dozens of events around the country for groups of like-minded politically activated voters who want to discuss ways to support their presidential candidates.
Interest has been so overwhelming that even presidential hopeful Howard Dean attended a meeting of his backers last week in New York City.
The former Vermont governor, one of nine Democratic contenders seeking their party's nod to run against President Bush in November 2004, made an appearance Wednesday night before a crowd of 550 at the Essex Club in Manhattan's Lower East Side.
"We need your help on the Internet and off the Internet — this is an extremely powerful tool," Dean told cheering fans who made it into the club. Many more couldn't get inside and were wrapped around the block hoping to get a glimpse of their candidate.
"There's an enormous number of people all over the country who are putting out our message on the Internet," Dean said. "What you all can do is so incredibly powerful — you can change this country, just like my generation did [in Vietnam], with better tools at your disposal."
Through the Internet, over 2,500 people in 79 cities total were able to participate in the meeting. Nationwide, over 4,200 people signed on to "meet up" with Dean and his supporters.
Among them was Columbia University junior Brian Schaitkin, who heard about Meetup.com around campus, then went online and signed up for Wednesday's Dean rally.
"I think it's the perfect way for candidates to build support, build a real organization and try to establish himself if he doesn't necessarily have a lot of name recognition and a lot of capital to work with," Schaitkin said.
David Nir went to his first "meetup" in February. At the time, 15 others showed up, but after checking out hordes of Dean Web logs and realizing there was enough support out there to form a group, he and other participants decided to make fliers, start an e-mail listserv and talk about what fundraising they could do to support their man.
From that, the "New York for Dean" campaign was formed, and since then, Dean's campaign has asked them to organize a formal campaign in the city.
"This whole enterprise could not have happened without the Internet," Nir said.
While Heiferman said that it now seems obvious how the Internet can help political causes, candidates and parties get people involved, some say it's a far cry from a professional forum for politics.
"Meetup.com is at the edge of what's acceptable, at best," Cornfield said.
That may be true. The day after Dean's rally, another event was held at a coffee shop in the Upper West Side for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and no one showed up.
But others say Meetup.com may have hit on something, particularly in its ability to draw the next generation into the conversation.
"Younger people traditionally have not been as involved … and the Internet seems like their domain, to some degree, so that strikes me as a fine way of younger people getting involved," said Michael Hagen, director of public interest polling at the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University.
Cornfield said that he suspects when the anti-war movement loses its reason for being, both Meetup.com and the Dean campaign will see a slip in interest.
"It's not the Internet that's powering it, it's the channel where people are not satisfied with the war are finding their way to these meetings," Cornfield said. "It's like a spider's web into campaigns."