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Web site draws few Senate hopefuls so far--but their volunteers love it

July 25, 2003

BY SCOTT FORNEK Political Reporter

Audra likes Barack Obama, and she has a cat named Sparky. Vince likes "Barack and applesauce."

Martin is an intern for Obama's Democratic campaign for U.S. Senate and likes "long walks on sandy beaches."

Guerrini8 has a more direct message: "Hello Fellow Barackians! Let's hit it!"

The paths of all four cross at, a sort of cyber mix of political activism, hobby corner, singles bar and town hall meeting that is the hottest new organizing tool in politics.

"It really seems to be taking on a life of its own," Obama said.

Political circles have been buzzing for weeks about how former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean used the year-old Web site to create a grass-roots base that catapulted him to the front row of Democratic presidential hopefuls and helped him raise $5 million.

But in Illinois, stage for one of next year's top U.S. Senate contests, only three of the score of Democrats and Republicans actively running or exploring a run for the seat of Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald have taken advantage of the free Internet service.

Chicagoans can use the site to find local meetings on Dean's and others' presidential bids, vampires, knitting, "The Lord of the Rings," vegetarianism, the rock group Radiohead or 90 other topics.

But only Obama and rival Democrats M. Blair Hull and Gery Chico have begun trying to organize supporters through So far, Obama is in the lead, with 88 supporters signed up on the site's area devoted to his campaign. Hull has 57. Chico, who joined only Thursday, has five signed up.

As of Thursday, 65,615 had signed on in support of Dean.

The site seeks to organize local gatherings of people who share common interests on just about anything. It makes its money through advertising from restaurants and other businesses hoping to host the "meetups."

"I don't get the sense so much it's a way for us to communicate with our volunteers as it is a way for our volunteers to communicate with one another," Obama said.

Not everyone is sold on the idea.

"The only Web site we'll be directing people to will be jack," said Jason Miller, Republican Jack Ryan's campaign manager. "We'll let the Dems monopolize"

State Comptroller Dan Hynes' Democratic exploratory effort already has a database of more than 20,000 supporters it communicates with, a spokeswoman said.

"I can't say that we wouldn't use [Meetup], but we already have an incredible network of people that we tap into," Chris Mather said.

Republicans John Cox, Jim Oberweis and Andy McKenna Jr. are all debating whether to use it. Former Air Force Maj. Gen. John Borling said he plans to immediately call his consultants to discuss using the site for his GOP exploratory effort.

"If the boat floats, I tend to want to jump in it," Borling said.

And Dr. Chirinjeev Kathuria, a Republican candidate, plans to use as part of an elaborate Internet campaign.

Other Democrats running or exploring runs include health care executive Joyce Washington, Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, radio personality Nancy Skinner, retired coal miner Vic Roberts and Metamora Mayor Matt O'Shea. Republicans include former state Rep. Jim Durkin, DuPage County Board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom, former Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood, former state Sen. Patrick J. O'Malley, state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger and RTA Chairman Thomas McCracken.


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