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Democrats race to catch up to GOP online

The Democratic National Committee relaunches its Web site and appoints its first technology adviser in an effort to match the Republican party's success in using the Internet to build its constituency.

The Democratic National Committee relaunched its Web site Friday and appointed its first technology adviser in an effort to match the Republican party's success in using the Internet to build its constituency.

The committee said it has named former America Online executive Mark Walsh as chief technology adviser. Walsh is the chairman and former CEO of Internet start-up VerticalNet.

The committee has also revamped its site, incorporating many of the personalized, interactive features that the Republican National Committee and House Republican Conference sites have offered for some time. The new committee site of the Democrats, for example, lets people tailor pages to fit with interests in particular political issues; the committee also updated its e-mail system, allowing members to send personalized messages to supporters.

After the 2000 election, the committee of the Democrats decided it could improve its use of technology and the Internet, said Bill Buck, a committee spokesman.

"We realized that the Republicans were ironically peddling their Stone Age ideas with modern-day technology tools, and we were just not at their level in our dedication to technology," Buck said.

Insiders say it's widely acknowledged that the Republican committee has done a better job than the Democrats' committee in creating an online strategy.

The Republican committee "is far and away ahead in securing a large constituent of online activists and does a better job of using the medium to move their message," said Pam Fielding of E-advocates, an Internet advocacy consulting firm based in Washington, D.C.

The House Republican Conference site had 1.7 million visitors last year and recently won an award from the Congress Online Project, an organization funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts that examines Congress and how it interacts with citizens through the Internet.

The moneymaker
But the political groups are seeking more than praise for their online efforts. The Internet has become a powerful political tool for raising campaign funds and rallying supporters.

Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley raised more than $1.3 million in Internet contributions during his campaign in the 2000 primaries. President Bush's site raised more than $2 million during the recount battle, and the Bush campaign capitalized on its extensive e-mail list throughout the ordeal. In contrast, the Gore campaign quit updating its site after Nov. 10.

The committee from the Democrats expects its new site, which cost millions of dollars to develop, to help it boost activism. Its goal is to engage more than 1 million people on the Web by the end of the year, up from a few hundred thousand that use the site now. It also expects the site to help it court young voters.

But the real payoff will be in the ability to turn Web activism into House and Senate seats in the 2002 elections, Buck said.

"The proof of success will come on election day on 2002," Buck said.

The recognition by the committee of the Democrats that the Web is an essential communication tool is encouraging, E-advocates' Fielding said.

"I believe the capacity is there on the democratic side of the aisle," she said. "We really need both parties to be equally engaged with the public online; that's good for democracy."