The rise of an obscure, former US state governor from also-ran to front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has spotlighted the Internet as political kingmaker of the future.
When Howard Dean first declared that he was seeking the nomination, he was considered at best a dark horse whose only real public profile was as a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq.
But the former governor of the rural eastern state of Vermont has bucked conventional wisdom by raising US$7.5 million dollars in campaign financing over the past three months, more than half of it through the Internet.
The figure surprised many political observers and raised Dean's standing in the nine-horse nomination race alongside such heavyweights as Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri.
With the first primaries still more than six months away, it remains to be seen whether Dean has the right stuff. But even if he does wind up an also-ran, the success of his campaign thus far will leave a legacy of respect for the Internet's political clout.
"Of course the Internet has been tapped before as a fund-raising source," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Centre for Responsive Politics -- a non-partisan Washington-based research body specializing in political financing.
"But what's new here is the extent to which Dean's campaign has focused on the Internet and how successful it has been," he said.
According to Noble, Dean is showing the way for other candidates who lack the political clout of their heavyweight peers and therefore have limited success with traditional forms of funding, such as black-tie dinners and large individual donors.
The average online donation to Dean's campaign has been only US$112, but with close to 60,000 contributors, the cash has piled up.
"What the Internet is very effective for, as we are seeing with Dean, is going to the smaller contributors and going out to them nationwide," Noble said. "And compared to direct mail fundraising it's relatively inexpensive."
Bob Bauer, an expert in campaign finance whose company represents Kerry and Gephardt, believes the buzz building around the Internet was premature and somewhat exaggerated.
"It's easy to overstate the novelty and significance of a new fund-raising tool as a means for the future," Bauer told the New York Times. "The Internet as a revolutionary tool? I don't know."
But it's not just the money. Dean's campaign staff are hoping that the grassroots support generated on the Internet for their candidate will also translate into solid votes.