Howard Dean, who has built an extensive network of Internet-savvy supporters, is expected to get the most votes in the MoveOn.org primary. Organizers of the site say any advantage for the former Vermont governor is due to his appeal among their members, and not any misdeeds in their process or because one of their employees worked on his campaign.
The primary begins Tuesday and voting runs for 48 hours. If one candidate gets more than 50 percent, MoveOn.org will endorse the campaign and ask its 1.4 million members to donate. Last year, MoveOn.org members contributed $4.1 million to the congressional candidates highlighted on the site, said Wes Boyd, one of two former Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who started it five years ago.
The Democratic presidential campaigns have sent E-mail messages to their supporters, asking them to register at MoveOn.org and vote.
Officials in Dick Gephardt's campaign said they were surprised when their supporters who registered got an e-mail encouraging them to vote for Dean. Gephardt's team considered pulling out of the primary but decided to stay in.
"We are not going to change our participation at this point, but we are concerned that the process seems to be rigged," said Erik Smith, a spokesman for the presidential campaign of the Missouri lawmaker. "We think there is a legitimate role for MoveOn to organize grass-roots support for candidates, but we are worried that it appears they are playing favorites."
Dean campaign manager, Joe Trippi, said the other campaigns are just trying to disparage the primary because they know they will not win.
Dean said: "People in Washington wonder why so many have been turning away from the political process. This type of baseless accusation only gives them one more reason to tune out."
Boyd said everyone registered on the site got the Dean E-mail Wednesday because he finished in the top three in a poll conducted by the campaign last month. The other top finishers also got to send a message--Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's was sent Thursday; Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich will send his Friday.
Other campaigns have written pitches that are posted on MoveOn.org, but not E-mailed to its members. The messages are a reward for finishing at the top of the poll, and the other campaigns were told that they would be sent in a memo describing the endorsement process, Boyd said.
"You want to give everyone a soap box, but different size soap boxes in a sense," Boyd said.
Still, other rival campaigns say Dean has the clear advantage. They point out that one of MoveOn.org's employees, Zack Exley, recently took a leave of absence for two weeks and two days when he was paid to work on organizing Dean's Web site.
"We're participating and we think that we've gotten a good response from our supporters but, given the group's involvement with other candidates early on, we won't be shocked to see the results go another way," said Jennifer Palmieri, spokeswoman for North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
Trippi says Exley was hired because he admires MoveOn.org's ability to organize so many activists over the Web and wanted to learn about his ideas. Boyd said he would give Exley a leave if other campaigns also wanted to work with Exley.