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Castor campaign gets Internet boost

While heading full-force into the Aug. 31 primary election, both national and statewide campaigns are trying to make an impact on voters. Making an impact on voters has changed in the recent elections years, with more emphasis on “Get the Vote Out” efforts and attracting voters and contributors via the Internet.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s campaign for presidency helped several Americans see that the Internet was not only a way to advertise for the candidate but also to raise money and get voters active in the campaign.

Larry Biddle, one of the key players in developing Dean’s Web site strategy, is here in Florida and is now working with former USF President and education commissioner Betty Castor, who is running for U.S. Senate. Biddle, who joined the campaign in April, serves as Castor’s deputy campaign manager and has turned into the modern, hip, where volunteers are featured as “Bettyheads.” Supporters, voters or people who are interested in the Castor campaign can read the Betty Blog and participate in e-mail fund raising.

Biddle, 63, served as Dean’s former deputy finance director and is one of several people, he says, who is credited for raising about $25 million — half of the $50 million that the Dean campaign raised through the Internet.

He said he decided to join Castor’s campaign because Florida is the “political ground zero,” and he wanted to take the Dean Internet experience to a statewide campaign.

“(The Internet) is a huge advance in politics,” Biddle said. “About 77 percent of people use the Internet nowadays. The Internet is going to propel politics because everything can be done online now, even paying your bills.”, which was launched three weeks ago, has doubled not only fiscal contributions but also site traffic. Biddle said before switching, the site had about 10,000 e-mail addresses from visitors; now there are almost 14,000, with projections of even more hits in the coming weeks.

The new Internet effort has raised about $37,000 for Castor’s campaign so far, Biddle said, without asking for specific donations or advertising the new site. According to an article by The Associated Press, Castor raised more than $1.25 million in the first quarter this year before was created.

“I read an article the other day that said that most of the people in Florida get their political information on the Internet,” Biddle said. “We combine all the traditional aspects (of a campaign Web site) and the use of the Internet.”

However, Castor’s campaign is still behind two other Democratic U.S. Senate candidates U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch and Miami-Dade mayor Alex Penelas, who had both raised about $2.9 million by the end of March.

Biddle said the Internet method that he and several other people, including Dean’s campaign manager and spokesman Joe Trippi, started was not only to fundraise money but also to build a community for voters and for people.

“We want the Internet to be a site that can be informative for people, not only about Betty, but about where to vote, how to vote early,” Biddle said. “We want to use it as a way people value it for help and information besides raising money.”

All candidates, Republican and Democrat, running for either U.S. Senate and or the presidency, have Web sites, with tools such as newsletters, notices of upcoming events and information on the candidates’ stances on issues. Biddle said his vision is to use the Internet so people can take action.

“We have much more than advertising on,” he said. “Our Web site is more functional. People have the opportunity to take on projects.”

Susan MacManus, USF political science professor and political analyst, said Biddle joining the Castor campaign and starting the new Internet project will help and has definitely gotten media attention. MacManus added that she agreed that a Web site nowadays is not only about getting money but also whom you can get to the site.

“Today you’ve got to have a Web site. The plain, cookie-cutter Web site won’t do, either,” MacManus said. “It has to be a site that is unusual and will get people to come back. A site should be interactive.”

Biddle added that he expects that will grow bigger, especially in the coming weeks, as the site offers more content. There will be a new “Team Roster” function that will allow Castor to see who is contributing to her campaign and who is raising money.

“People can create their own fund raising goals, with their own page that they can have people go to and give money and show their support for Betty,” Biddle said.

This week, a new function, called “Advocacy,” will be added. This function will allow visitors to put in their zip codes and read letters to the editor and stories in their local newspapers about the Castor campaign, Biddle said.

“These are the kind of new things that the Internet provides,” he said.

Biddle said he hopes to get in touch with different organizations, such as the new student organization at USF, Students for Castor, to get ideas and suggestions about the Web site.

“That is what helped us in the Dean campaign – gaining feedback,” he said.