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Just four years after the birth of network television in 1948, Richard Nixon was on the air pleading for his political life.

Under the cloud of a secret slush fund scandal, the vice presidential candidate on prime time television detailed his family's finances and admitted accepting the gift of a black-and-white cocker spaniel that daughter Tricia had named Checkers."I just want to say this right now," said Nixon, who was fighting to remain as Dwight Eisenhower's 1952 running mate, "regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it."

The Checkers speech was a resounding success, Nixon stayed on the ticket and the word telegenic was born. It was the first taste of the power of a new medium which eventually would come to dominate the political process.

Although the Internet, the emerging medium of the '90s, has yet to see its own version of the defining Checkers speech, many say it promises to have more impact on the way we govern than the 10-second sound bite ever did. Already, this year's presidential race is seeing tremendous experimentation with the new technology as candidates strive to appear the most cyber-genic.

Most agree that digital campaigning is still limited and is likely to play a small role in 1996. But many expect political use of the medium to hit full stride by the next presidential election in 2000.

"The Web is still in its early stages, and most campaigns are still cutting their teeth on it," said Nelson Warfield, press secretary for Sen. Bob Dole's presidential campaign. "Like the early days of television and radio, this election cycle will be a shaking out period in which campaigns find out what works and what doesn't."

The Senate majority leader's camp claims to have recruited more than 1,500 volunteers and raised more than $10,000 through its site.

Politicians view the Internet as a way of reaching voters directly, bypassing the "filter" provided by traditional media.

"It offers a direct avenue of communication between the Dole campaign and the American public," Warfield said. The Internet allows organizations to post details such as a candidate's schedule, the text of speeches, and the contents of legislation.

Beyond this year's election campaigns, however, the freedom offered by the Internet may even threaten political parties.

"If the Internet is anything, it truly is a marketplace of ideas," said Albert Gidari, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank. "People will form around ideas, and those that can produce the best ideas and survive the marketplace of the Internet will win.

"The Internet threatens political parties because they are like the media: They filter the message and what the Internet does is remove the filter. You can find the ideas on your own and be your own filter."

Already, thousands of people participate in electronic debates using electronic mailing lists and news groups, think tanks and activist organizations across the political spectrum have built Web sites to promote their views, and political parties use broadcast e-mail to organize their ranks and get their messages out.

The Internet, with its ability to reach millions of people at virtually no cost, has tremendous organizing potential that politicians have yet to grasp. Doug Bailey, cofounder of the PoliticsUSA Web site, envisions politicians raising money and sending out their message through e-mail lists, much as they do now with traditional mail.

The reverse will also be true.

"The Net allows increased expression of the real opinions of individuals rather than the grunts and ululations of the phantom public" through polls, said futurist George Gilder. "Politicians who understand this will benefit from the Net. The rest - the Perots of the world - will be confounded by it."

But virtual politics remains tiny compared to its real-world counterpart and even relative to other Internet activities. For example, the Dole campaign claims that its site, widely regarded as the most innovative among the presidential candidate sites, has had more than 2 million "hits" since September, a fact proudly noted in a press release.

In contrast, the Super Bowl site had 6 million hits on game day alone, and 28 million since it opened shop in late December. Each hit on a site does not necessarily represent one visitor, since a person going to a site is likely to register several hits.

Besides trying to win the support of outsiders, political organizations of all stripes are using the Internet to organize and communicate among themselves.

The Grassroots Party of Minnesota, for example, said the Internet has allowed them to start chapters in Rhode Island, North Dakota and Colorado.

"It's an organizing tool. Definitely," said Steve Anderson, secretary of the group, which promotes the legalization of drugs. "It's an incredible way to reach people that we need to reach."

Others see the Internet as an opportunity to "open up" the political processes in Washington and locally. Besides allowing people to contact their representatives electronically as many do already, people can track legislation as it wends its way through the system or be alerted to changes in laws that would affect them.

"That can only be healthy," said Andy Gabron, director of online operations for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "They may be able to exert a little more influence if they see provisions that they don't like. They will be able to organize and mobilize more quickly to act against them."

Already, organizations such as the nonpartisan Project Vote Smart have made their databases on politicians available over the Internet.

Because Internet users have tended to be richer and better educated, some fear that the new technology will only exacerbate the differences in political power between rich and poor.

"We are worried that we are developing an information separation politically," said Richard Kimball, board president of Corvallis, Oregon-based Vote Smart. "If you do that, you leave behind the less financially well-off and you lose a critical component of democracy."

To partially alleviate the problem, the League of Women Voters and Vote Smart have joined to put computers with Internet access in libraries, while housing authorities in Michigan have put terminals in their projects. Vote Smart makes its database accessible over the phone with an 800 number.

Registering to vote online and actual voting online are coming, Bailey said, but there first must be a way to overcome the same concerns that face voting and registering by mail. The underlying technology to deal with issues such as potential voter fraud already exists.

Once those concerns are dealt with, voter turnout is bound to increase sharply, said Bailey, pointing to the surprisingly large turnout of last month's senate race in Oregon, the first ever to be conducted by mail.

"If you make voting easier, you inevitably make it bigger," he said.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)