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Mark Shields - Obama's "Gimmick"

Politicians of the losing party are always quick to find the "gimmick" a winning opponent has so obviously mastered that explains the winner's success with the voters.

When Franklin Roosevelt became the dominant political figure of the 20th century by winning the White House four times, his Republican opponents concluded that FDR's masterful fireside chats, broadcast to the nation, were the key to his success - his "gimmick." The GOP consoled itself with the mistaken belief that if they could just find somebody who was really "good on radio," the presidency would be theirs.

Democrats reacted the same way after Ronald Reagan won two presidential landslides. The Gipper, Democrats agreed, was just "terrific on television," and success would come just as soon as the Democrats could get themselves a good-on-TV nominee - as though the answer to their electoral problems was to nominate Regis Philbin.

Now, with the arrival of a new political star, Barack Obama, the gimmick-finders are busy again.

The Illinois Democrat's silver bullet: his campaign's mastery of the Internet to raise money, that's the secret! True, Obama has raised more in one month than the best-known Internet-funded candidate, Howard Dean, was able to raise in his entire 2003-2004 campaign. But there is no Obama "gimmick" - just as there wasn't with Roosevelt or Reagan. What there is now, just as there was then, is quite simply a special candidate with a special message that resonates with voters and to which those voters respond.

Listen to Professor Anthony Corrado of Colby College, one of the nation's most respected experts on campaign finance: "Sen. Obama - in February of the election year - has already received contributions from more than 1 million individuals. He has more donors than the Democratic National Committee had in the presidential year of 2000. All by himself, this guy is a political party."

But because he knows from first-hand experience the practical realities of presidential campaigns, Corrado understands that this is about much more than simply raising big bucks: "The lesson from Obama is the candidate who can convert that resonance into not just votes and online donations but into a new social and political community."

It's true the Obama campaign has done a remarkable job of mainstreaming its donors into the campaign where their names and interests are passed on to the local Obama headquarters, which responds by inviting the new Obama contributor/supporter to campaign events, encourages her to volunteer to call or to canvass voters. E-mail updates with campaign news are sent regularly from the campaign to the new supporter. In short, to contribute is to be encouraged to join in a like-minded, active and welcoming company of neighbors and fellow citizens.

Michael Malbin, the executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, contrasts this involving-engaging Obama approach to the passive experience of the traditional campaign contributor who responded to a direct mail letter from a candidate. What most frequently would follow, often simultaneous with the thank-you message, was another solicitation to contribute - followed by more solicitations.

According to Malbin, "Up to now, Ronald Reagan had been the champion of small contributors, but Barack Obama is on a record-breaking pace."

For evidence of the greater personal involvement of online contributors in the campaign, Malbin cites a 2004 survey of such folks, which found that fully 25 percent of campaign online donors went to a campaign meeting in the home of a stranger.

The key, of course, is small donors. Professor Corrado points out that 90 percent of the $28 million Obama raised online in January came in contributions of $100 or less. This meant that he was able to finance professional and winning efforts in the caucus states, outspend Sen. Clinton in primary contests and finance the expense (try renting major arenas and organizing the logistics, crowd control and sound systems) of Obama's signature mass-audience rallies, which always get covered on TV and lead to new small donors.

To Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution, who cares passionately about the health of American politics, the explosion of these Obama small donors is unalloyed good news: "It means that individual citizens have a real stake in the outcome and direction of the campaign."

That's a positive development in this sea of cynicism. But it is most definitely not a "gimmick."