‘Meet Up’ events draw Dean supporters

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(Host) In an effort to boost his run for president, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean has made extensive use of the Internet. Dean has raised over a million dollars online and, using a relatively new web site, he’s also raised his profile. More than 30,000 people signed up online to take part in Dean campaign events across the nation Wednesday night.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Speaker at a Meet Up) ” We’re working on canvassing weekends in New Hampshire….”

(Zind) About 30 people gathered at a Montpelier restaurant Wednesday night to talk about how to further the presidential aspirations of Howard Dean. Unlike most people outside of Vermont, this group didn’t need to learn more about the man who spent a decade just a few blocks from here. They were ready to get to work.

Michael McMahon of Barre is a University of Vermont student who plans to volunteer for the Dean campaign. McMahon says Dean’s use of the Internet is an effective way to organize people his age:

(McMahon) “I think it’s very effective, actually. Because so many people want to help out and if there’s not an easy outlet for them, if they have to be near a campaign center, then there’s all those untapped people that no one’s going to reach.”

(Zind) The Montpelier gathering was one of hundreds in support of Dean that took place across the country Wednesday night – all organized through a web site called Meet Up. Susan Wilkins was one of 20 or so people at the Howard Dean Meet Up at a college bar in Tempe, Arizona. It’s her first Dean Meet up:

(Wilkins) “They’re about to put in a video. I’m not sure what video we’re going to watch and then we’ll get on with the agenda. There are people who have been doing this for a couple of months.”

(Zind) The Dean Meet Up in Kansas City took place at Bo Ling’s Chinese Restaurant. Chris Rassmussen has been going to the meet ups from the beginning. He says the numbers have grown from about 20 to over 100 people.

(Rasmussen) “I think people have been waiting for a Democratic candidate who will stand up. I think meeting people much like themselves provides an opportunity to share a message as well as contribute some money to the campaign to get him started over here.”

(Zind) In President Bush’s home state, Tony McMullin arrived early at the Bronx Restaurant in Dallas for last night’s Meet Up. McMullin found out about the gathering at the Meet Up web site and then told friends about it. He’s also spent a lot of time online reading up about Dean.

(McMullin) “Every couple of days I check in on him and see what’s going on and where he’s been and what he’s talking about. I’m looking forward to tonight’s meeting. This is actually the first time that I’ll be face to face with other Dean supporters.”

(Zind) Thirty thousand people signed up for this month’s Meet Ups, making Dean supporters the largest group on the Meet Up web site. According to MeetUp.com, 1,300 groups use their site to organize local meetings: everyone from Pug owners to belly dancers – and now Presidential candidates.

Myles Weissleder of Meet Up says Dean was the first presidential candidate to take advantage of the year old web site. Weissleder says the Internet will be a major part of future campaigns.

(Weissleder) “It seems like the future is almost here. A lot of folks are saying that this election season is really going to be the dawn of the Internet playing a major role. It’s hard to get a million people in a room for a large convention, but through the Internet it’s easy to get a million people meeting in different towns.”

(Zind) Weissleder says Meet Up’s creators didn’t have politicians in mind when they designed the web site. But after seeing the activity generated by Dean, Meet Up is actively courting the other presidential candidates.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Montpelier.

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