Moveon.org, one of the most potent political sites in cyberspace, began its first presidential primary yesterday and quickly experienced some of the same glitches and controversies that bedevil elections in the material world.
Unexpectedly heavy turnout knocked out the vote-counting machinery for a while. Contending candidates cried foul.
But by afternoon more than 100,000 votes had been cast in what could be the first meaningful ballot of the Democratic presidential race -- a number roughly comparable to the likely participation in next January's Iowa caucuses, a venerable milestone on the old-style campaign trail. Moveon.org founder Wes Boyd predicted the two-day contest would ultimately tally hundreds of thousands of votes.
If any candidate can burst from the nine-member field and win more than 50 percent of those votes -- a tough prospect -- the 1.4-million member Moveon.org network will deliver its endorsement. Given that the network has become one of the most effective online fundraising operations in the country, an endorsement could generate millions of dollars for the winning candidate.
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean was an early favorite in the primary. His early and sharp criticism of the war in Iraq gave him a head start with the antiwar Moveon.org membership. The Dean campaign's adroit use of the Internet is another leg up.
Some opponents have charged that Moveon.org has tipped the scales further in Dean's favor. They note that the primary began just hours after Dean commanded headlines and television coverage with his official announcement that he is indeed running for president. They also have complained that Dean recently hired a Moveon.org employee -- there are only a handful -- as a consultant.
Spokesmen for the party's more centrist candidates said the contest was unfair, if not rigged. Several complained that Moveon.org held an online straw poll before much attention was focused on the primary, then allowed the top three finishers -- Dean, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) and Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) -- to send e-mail pitches to the group's 1.4 million members.
"Three candidates were given a head start," said Jennifer Palmieri, a spokeswoman for Sen. John Edwards (N.C.). "It's like the equivalent of asking all of the candidates to attend a forum in which only three of them are allowed to give opening statements."
Boyd denied that the deck is stacked.
"We're having to grow thick skins," the software entrepreneur said in a telephone interview. "We're playing with the big boys now." He said the main purpose of the primary is to build grass-roots support for all the Democrats. The primary ballot includes exhortations to volunteer time and donate money and asks for a pledge to support the eventual nominee. Every candidate will receive a list of e-mail addresses of willing supporters who voted in the primary, Boyd said.
Some campaign spokesmen complained about various technical problems -- their supporters said they did not receive a timely ballot or could not vote because the Moveon.org server failed.
Boyd started Moveon.org in 1998 to oppose the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. By 2002 it was large enough to raise more than $4 million for favored candidates. Membership soared during the debate over the Iraq war.
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