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Dean's grass roots taking hold along Internet

Back in March, four people showed up at a little downtown coffee shop to chat about the quixotic campaign of Howard Dean.

Last Wednesday, it was standing room only at the Globe Coffee Lounge, with 80 people cheering and plotting strategy. They craned their necks to see the image of Dean on a laptop computer.

"We're going to build a community in this country again, and you're the vanguard of that community. We're going to take our country back," Dean said in a pep talk video that also featured Hollywood director Rob Reiner.

These are foot soldiers in the Dean campaign, and thousands of them assembled Wednesday at coffee shops, bookstores and bars across America. The growing monthly gatherings are testament to an emerging political force that Dean is tapping like no national candidate ever before: the Internet.

"If in the end Howard Dean becomes president, the story will be that it was the Internet that made the difference," said Bob Rogan, Dean's deputy campaign manager.

Where candidates used to tout Web sites as tools for providing voters easy access to position papers and campaign news, Dean is using the Internet to organize an army of Internet-savvy volunteers.

"The Internet found us; we didn't find them," Dean said in a phone interview between campaign stops in Iowa last week. "All we did was have a message."

It reached people like Elinor Gollay, a St. Petersburg writer who liked what she'd seen of Dean and went online to get more information. A few mouse clicks later, she hooked up with other Dean fans in the Tampa Bay area.

Soon, she was at an Internet-organized house party for Dean in Seminole, and she donated $250 over the Internet. On Wednesday she joined other avid Dean supporters _ an all-white assortment of peace activists, veteran Democratic volunteers and a few people who said they hadn't bothered with politics in years _ at the Globe coffee shop.

Many there said computer activism is making them feel politically relevant for the first time in years. "There's an online community being formed," said Gollay.

Wednesday's gathering came via Meetup.com, a Web site that brings together people with shared interests ranging from knitting to Star Trek.

Fans of the former Vermont governor began growing on Meetup.com this year, eventually surpassing witches as the No. 1 Meetup topic. By late last week, more than 55,000 people had signed up for Dean Meetups, including more than 350 in the Tampa Bay area and 1,600 in Florida.

The Dean campaign noticed its growing Meetup strength early and provided encouragement and links on its campaign Web site. Initially seen as a way to organize volunteer activists to compete with better-funded Democratic rivals, Dean is lately proving the Internet can do more than that.

In the fundraising quarter that ended June 30, Dean beat the rest of the Democratic field, raising $7.5-million. The campaign says about $3.6-million came over the Internet, including more than $800,000 on the final day of the fundraising. Nearly 60,000 people contributed, including 48,000 who had never given to a campaign.

"This is a new time and a new age. It's really a grass-roots movement. It's taking on a life of its own, and it's basically all being done through the Internet," said Lisa Fink, a Democratic activist who organized the initial Dean Meetup in St. Petersburg.

On Wednesday, Dean Meetup attendees in St. Petersburg and across the country received names and addresses of undecided Iowans. They wrote letters urging them to back Dean in Iowa's crucial caucuses in January.

Fink was in New Jersey, and had to miss the Globe Meetup. But no matter. She found another Dean Meetup there.

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