Last year, the Media Fund was a free-spending titan among the independent groups trying to get Democrat John F. Kerry elected president.

This year, it's back to the old drawing board: A dramatically scaled-back Media Fund hopes to use the Virginia governor's race as a laboratory in a kind of a research-and-development campaign for liberals.

According to Democratic sources, the group plans to use a variety of voter-contact activities -- direct mail, phone banks and even door-to-door canvassing -- in an experiment to divine which combination of methods and issue appeals is most effective in turning out "low propensity" voters in Northern Virginia.

From the Media Fund's perspective, a low-propensity voter probably would vote Democratic -- if he or she bothered to vote at all. These voters turned out in the presidential race last year, but are less likely to vote in an off-year election without prodding.

As a progressive group, the Media Fund of course favors Democratic nominee Timothy M. Kaine over Republican Jerry W. Kilgore. But the effort is not aimed principally at influencing this race, according to one Democratic source familiar with the Media Fund's activities. The idea is to accrue knowledge that might prove useful for Democrats in other races around the country in 2006 and 2008.

The Virginia project was conceived by a handful of strategists who had been affiliated with the liberal group America Coming Together. ACT, once the largest and best-financed of the liberal independent groups that sprouted for the 2004 election, has essentially shuttered its operation.

The experiment is animated by a belief among many in the Democratic consulting world that Republican direct mail, which tends to be more hard-hitting, is more effective in turning out weak partisans in nonpresidential elections. As part of the Media Fund program, different groups of voters in the target area will receive various types of mail. Some will get what are known in the mail industry as "concept pieces," which carry a subtle negative message and are traditionally favored by Democrats, while others will get the more inflammatory mailers.

There's still one catch. With its coffers no longer flush as they were last year, the Media Fund is still soliciting donors to find out if it can pay for its Virginia experiment.

Lott in Limbo

Sen. Trent Lott says he'll decide about running for a fourth term by the end of the year. But Democrats already are considering their options if the veteran Republican does retire.

Mississippians prefer Republicans in statewide races, and at the moment, the heavy favorite to succeed Lott is Rep. Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr., a five-term GOP House member.

Democrats believe the political terrain could be becoming more favorable -- in particular if they can mobilize the state's large African American population. "There's a lot of work to be done, but it's doable," said one Democratic political aide.

The Democratic roster of potential open-seat candidates includes Mike Moore, the former state attorney general best known for his lead role in the tobacco wars; former governor Ray Mabus; Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood; and Rep. Gene Taylor, who represents Lott's old district on the Gulf Coast. African American prospects include Mike Espy, the former Mississippi congressman and Clinton agriculture secretary, and James Graves, a justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Lott says he's genuinely torn over what to do. "It's very, very tough," he said. Among the factors tempting him to call it quits: His career in Congress has already crested, and Hurricane Katrina destroyed his family home -- which doubled as his retirement nest egg -- in Pascagoula. Lott has no personal wealth and is about to turn 64. If he serves another six years in the Senate, he may or may not have the energy for a lucrative stint in the private sector.

On the other hand, Lott's formidable legislative skills have never been more needed, as Mississippi tries to recover from the devastating storm. Nor is it out of the question that Lott could return to leadership, especially if Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who currently holds the Senate's No. 3 GOP post, loses his reelection bid next year, as polls suggest he might.

FEC Clears Nader Campaign

The Federal Election Commission has rejected an ethics complaint regarding Ralph Nader's presidential campaign and a charity he created.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) asked the FEC to investigate the relationship between Nader and the charity, Citizen Works, which leased office space to the campaign. CREW's complaint, after an article in The Washington Post last year, alleged that the arrangement violated campaign-finance laws.

Nader responded to the allegations with a letter and affidavits from staff, and the FEC said it found "no reason to believe" there had been any violation.

"Nader's response directly and completely refutes the complaint's allegations," the FEC said in a February filing that previously went unnoticed.

CREW also filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service alleging that Citizen Works breached prohibitions on public charities aiding political campaigns. Such investigations are not public under taxpayer-privacy laws, and the outcome is unknown.

Cillizza is a staff writer with Washington Post staff writer James V. Grimaldi contributed to this column.