Arizona Sen. John McCain's new Web site appears to be a straightforward plea for grass-roots support to "stop the special interests' control of Washington." Sign an online petition, McCain urges visitors, and add your "voice to the demand for campaign finance reform."
But the site -- at www.itsyourcountry.com on the Web -- is actually a high-tech solicitation for contributions to McCain's Republican presidential campaign. Visitors who click on the petition are asked to make a "small contribution," but are not told where the money will go. Aside from a small disclaimer saying it is paid for by "McCain 2000," the site never explicitly says donations will go toward his White House race.
"Clearly, our campaign is about reforming the way government works," said McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky. "But there was supposed to be a distinction . . . making it crystal clear this is a contribution to the campaign." The accidental deletion, Opinksy said, would be restored.
Like most of this year's presidential candidates, McCain has been quick to embrace the fund-raising potential of the Internet -- Opinsky said he has collected more than $100,000 in online donations.
But his foray into e-commerce also highlights an awkward dilemma for McCain, who has sought to turn his presidential bid into a referendum on his long and at times quixotic effort to overhaul what he calls a corrupt campaign finance system even as he mounts an aggressive fund-raising operation.
With Texas Gov. George W. Bush last week announcing a record-shattering $36 million raised for his White House bid, McCain has shifted even more aggressively into his role as campaign finance reformer -- condemning the excesses of unlimited "soft money" contributions in a series of speeches, unveiling the "It's Your Country" Web site and scrapping with his party's Senate majority leader, Trent Lott (Miss.), over plans to reintroduce his legislation later this month.
At the same time, McCain has emerged as a prolific fund-raiser, collecting $6.1 million total -- a distant second to Bush -- by capitalizing on his chairmanship of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee and, as his Web solicitation makes clear, using his reform stance to raise money as well. "The Internet gives you a new outlet," Opinksy said. "I don't think it's encroaching on traditional fund-raising methods yet, but down the road it could."
McCain's online fund-raising is part of a race by this year's White House candidates to tap the Internet money market -- a race that became even more attractive last month when the Federal Election Commission approved new rules allowing candidates to receive public matching funds for contributions received over the Internet via credit card.
So far, Democrat Bill Bradley and McCain appear to be the biggest beneficiaries of such fund-raising. A spokesman for Bradley said he had raised close to $200,000 on the Internet through the end of June, with money beginning to flow in even more quickly. "In the last six days we pulled in over $16,000 over the Internet, which is more than half of what we normally do in a whole month," said Eric Hauser.
With the notable exception of Bush, who does not yet accept online contributions, other candidates are eager to collect a bigger share of Internet money. Republican Elizabeth Dole, for example, sent an e-mail message late last month to people who registered with her Web site, imploring them to contribute before the second fund-raising quarter ended June 30. "Can I count on you to help me at this crucial moment in my campaign?" she asked.
Dole spokesman Ari Fleischer said Dole has raised $64,000 on the Web since the campaign began. "It's the cheapest fund-raiser known to man," he said.
Roger Salazar, a spokesman for Vice President Gore's campaign, said campaign officials have not calculated how much they have raised from credit card donations online but said they have raised around $20,000 from people printing the contribution form and sending it in with a check.
Former vice president Dan Quayle did not raise a significant amount online in the first six months of the year but has instituted a new online program -- the 21st Century Club -- to entice Web site visitors to make small-dollar contributions. "It's a low-dollar vehicle designed to maximize matching funds," said Quayle spokesman Jonathan Baron.
CAPTION: On Sen. John McCain's campaign finance reform Web site, users are asked to sign a petition and donate to the cause, but the site does not make it clear that the cause in fact is McCain's presidential bid.