NEW YORK — Every morning, before her 5-year-old daughter wakes up, Leah Faerstein sits down at her computer in her East Village apartment and logs onto Democratic presidential candidate Wesley K. Clark's Web site.
A few years ago, Faerstein was politically indifferent and didn't own a computer. But now the stay-at-home mom spends hours a day on Clark's Web log, or blog, munching on chocolate Clark bars and chatting with other aficionados of the former NATO commander.
Recently, she was thrilled to hear Clark use a phrase about democracy that she had suggested on the blog.
"I'm not going to take the credit," said Faerstein, 50. "But I think it's osmosis. There's a back and forth between us and the campaign. I couldn't feel more connected."
Faerstein is one of hundreds of thousands of people who have turned to the Internet this year to participate in national politics, relying on a technology that is playing a central role in the way citizens are experiencing the 2004 presidential campaign.
Unlike past elections, when Web sites served more like electronic bulletin boards for candidates and causes, the Internet has evolved into a thriving marketplace of political activity, a place where the like-minded seek out new converts.
On former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's Web site, thousands of supporters post independent events they've organized to promote his candidacy, from debate-watching parties to passing out fliers outside last week's opening of the new "Lord of the Rings" movie. Clark fans used the Internet to wage a "Draft Clark" campaign, an effort the retired Army general says was pivotal in persuading him to jump into the race.
Every month, 250,000 people in hundreds of cities participate in meetups, local gatherings of political activists of every stripe who find each other online.
The result is a new form of intimacy between campaigns and their far-flung supporters, the creation of virtual political communities powered by people devoted to the candidates.
Political experts say this year's activities represent a real shift in the role of the Internet, which was used in the 2000 campaign mostly to raise money.
"One of the most important things you can do now is connect with other people like you," said Audrey Haynes, a political science professor at the University of Georgia who studies how presidential candidates communicate. "It isn't just about money; it is about creating a movement. Once you are involved at this level, it is not likely that you are going to turn your back on the candidate."
One of the most tangible results of the new wave of Internet organizing is the explosion of monthly meetups. Participants find each other through Meetup.com, an independent Web site originally designed to help connect the like-minded, whether they be Harry Potter fans or Chihuahua lovers.
In February, Dean supporters logged on to the site and organized 11 separate meetups. Two weeks ago, more than 150,000 people participated in 900 Dean meetups in 265 different cities — dwarfing every other group on Meetup.com.
On a blustery night in Manhattan, about 60 people jammed into the basement of a dimly-lit bar on the Upper West Side, listening intently as a Dean supporter told them how they could help get the former governor on the New York ballot in March.
As people squeezed onto benches, clutching beers and glasses of wine, the organizer held up copies of petitions that needed to be signed, a different version for each congressional district. She placed the stacks in different parts of the bar and the room erupted in chaos as people sought out the right version, chatting avidly.
Paul Bennett, a 29-year-old financial analyst, said he's been coming to the Dean meetups since last spring, drawn by the desire to experience a form of political communion.
"This lets us see that we're not alone," Bennett said. "We all have the information, but it's like going to church, that feeling that there are people out there of like mind."
Stanley West, a self-employed management consultant in Los Angeles, describes himself as apolitical ("giving a politician my money — you must be kidding") but said he's put his business on hold so he can volunteer full time as a meetup organizer. His main targets are black and Latino voters.
He formed the Los Angeles Black and Latino Alliance for Dean, and this month met with about 20 people at Frazier's Creole Cuisine on the edge of Inglewood. "Black people, for whatever reason, are not as politically involved," said West, 47, who is African American. "I've got to do it all one-on-one."
The other candidates have quickly caught on. Supporters of Clark, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards are all holding meetups.
While Democratic candidates have dominated the forum, backers of President Bush also have a presence on Meetup.com, and two weeks ago 11,000 conservatives held their first meetup in 166 cities sponsored by the Web site Townhall.com.
"The liberals have been a bit quicker to take advantage of this tool," reads a message posted on the conservative Web site, urging people to participate. "We encourage you to grow the Townhall Meetup, recruit other members and spread the word. It's a new tool to build the grassroots."
In New York, the first Townhall meetup drew about 40 people to a hip bar on the Upper East Side, where they spent more than an hour exchanging political ideas — and a sense of relief at encountering other conservatives in the predominantly Democratic city.
"Howard Dean has absolutely blazed a trail in the use of meetups, but the Republicans aren't far behind," said Jason Weingartner, the 28-year-old president of the New York Young Republicans Club, as he surveyed the crowded room.
In Wilmington, N.C., about 14 people gathered for their Townhall meetup at Port City Java, a local coffeehouse. Among them were the chairman of the local Republican Party and a candidate for state attorney general.
Matthew Lester, a 26-year-old pizza deliveryman who helped organize the gathering, said he was inspired by the number of people participating in the Dean meetups in the area.
Lester said he's never been politically active or gotten involved in a campaign. But then he read about the Townhall meetings and was intrigued.
Experts say that is one of the most promising aspects of how the technology is now being used: to empower people who felt disengaged.
"A lot of folks would not contemplate getting involved in the traditional way, but through the Internet their appetite is whetted," said Grant Reeher, co-author of "Click on Democracy: The Internet's Power to Change Political Apathy into Civic Action."
Dean's campaign has pioneered many of those efforts. His Web site, in many ways, is the central nervous system of the campaign, the place where the staff seeks out feedback and supporters propose ideas.
"It's like having an office anybody can walk into and instantly become part of the staff," said Zephyr Teachout, Dean's director of Internet organizing. "We're basically using the Internet to allow us to have a 500,000-person staff."
Teachout, who is finishing a tour of the country to train local communities how to organize on the Internet, said nearly everyone she encounters feels they are on intimate terms with her and the entire campaign because of their online communication.
In recent months, online Dean fans came up with the idea of a letter-writing campaign to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire and offered new slogans, including "People-Powered Howard." The self-described "Deaniacs" created posters that other supporters can customize and download. They also suggested sartorial tips and general campaign strategy for Dean.
"Gov. Dean needs to be a little more forceful in interviews by not letting himself get talked over by these guys," a blogger named Dardango wrote. "A simple, 'Excuse me,' would put them back in their place."
But the most important goal of the online activity, Internet organizers said, is to get people off their keyboards and into their communities.
"We made a very conscious decision that we wanted the Web site to not be just a brochure, but a tool that supporters could use to evangelize for us," said John Hlinko, Clark's director of Internet strategy.
To that end, a group of software engineers coded their own Web site kit program called DeanSpace that allows local communities to build their own Dean Web sites that automatically update and share content. Hundreds of Clark supporters have started their own blogs, all connected to the main campaign blog, which runs highlights of the best postings.
Faerstein is an evangelizer.
Because of her involvement through the blog, she took a six-hour bus ride to New Hampshire a few weeks ago with other Clark supporters to canvass voters.
"I feel like I'm really part of this campaign," she said. "When someone says, 'What should they do?,' I say, 'What do you mean they?' It's us."
Times researcher Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times