TAMPA, Fla. – When Howard Dean's (search) campaign for the presidency turned to the Internet to raise money and motivate potential supporters, it made modern political history. Now a key player from Dean's campaign has turned his attention to Florida, making Betty Castor's otherwise traditional Senate campaign into a hip venture where "Bettyheads," the Betty Blog and e-mail fund raising are featured on BettyNet.com.
Larry Biddle (search), former deputy campaign finance director for Dean, is serving as deputy campaign manager for Castor, a former University of South Florida president and state education commissioner.
Biddle was credited with using the Internet to help raise $25 million for Dean — about half the money raised by the former Vermont governor's campaign.
"It's all about the people taking control," Biddle said. "The reason people in this country are so disaffected about politics is because they don't feel like they have any control."
So in addition to voters who come to rallies and kaffeeklatsches, Biddle imagines a legion of Castor supporters surfing the Web at night in their pajamas, reading up on the issues or sending a donation.
Castor is facing Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas (search) and U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch (search), the two other Democratic front-runners, for the party's nomination. The Republican field includes former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, former U.S. Housing Secretary Mel Martinez and state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd. The primary is Aug. 31.
The Internet effort has raised about $27,000 for Castor's campaign in the last three weeks without a specific request for donations, Biddle said. Castor's campaign raised more than $1.25 million in the first quarter of this year, before BettyNet came into being.
Castor, a Tampa resident, trails Deutsch and Penelas in fund raising, with the South Florida candidates both having raised about $2.9 million through March.
Castor said she hopes Biddle's fresh approach to politics will transcend geographic bases that often work against candidates in a large state like Florida.
"It's a way of energizing your base and really reaching out to new people who are Internet savvy," she said.
All the candidates vying to replace retiring Sen. Bob Graham have Web sites with tools such as e-mail newsletters or notices of upcoming events. But Biddle's vision for Castor is something akin to Dean's model, where the Internet is as much a political destination as the local Tiger Bay Club or League of Women Voters gathering.
Dean, whose presidential bid fell flat after dismal showings in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, had set fund-raising records and gathered millions of followers through online grass-roots efforts.
Danae Jones, a spokeswoman for Penelas, said Dean's influence can be seen in all the Florida camps in some form. "Howard Dean and his campaign showed us all the incredible use of the Internet," Jones said.
Among the site's highlighted features is the Betty Blog, where voters can communicate with each other. There's even a featured "Bettyhead," or campaign supporter.
"It has to have some audaciousness to it; it has to be hip," Biddle said. "People will say, 'This is not politics as usual.'"