updated 2/2/2004 3:15:26 PM ET 2004-02-02T20:15:26

After a full day developing Web applications for a government contractor, Michael Haggerty heads home for dinner and quality time with his young daughter. By 10 p.m., he's programming again, this time to help send Wesley Clark to the White House.

Between classes at the University of Illinois, Neil Drumm also hits the keyboard, his efforts aimed at boosting Howard Dean's fortunes.

As technology plays a greater role in presidential campaigns, programmers working for a handful of candidates, namely Dean and Clark, are building many of the tools themselves.

Some of the hottest Internet innovations are happening on the virtual campaign trail.

"Everybody's constantly revisiting and rewriting their site," said Steven Schneider, co-founder of the research site "Most of the candidates are recognizing and believing at least that the Internet is an important factor in campaigns."

Haggerty and Drumm are among scores of volunteers and staffers who have moved essential campaign work well beyond stuffing envelopes and leafleting, their programming achievements empowering grass-roots organizing.

Homegrown software
Not that all this coding will necessarily win elections, John Kerry won both Iowa and New Hampshire using existing commercial software, but Schneider said good technology can help transform candidates who might otherwise have remained an asterisk.

Among the noteworthy homegrown software: an events planner, information swappers and virtual phone banks.

Many of the Dean and Clark programmers embrace open-source software, adapting free products developed in non-campaign settings and sharing their improvements. For them, commercial software is often too expensive or inflexible.

"To the extent you build it yourself, it meets your specific needs," said Aldon Hynes, 44, a former info-tech executive who built a voter identification tool for Dean's Connecticut volunteers.

His software, developed under the banner of DeanSpace, is similar to eBlock built by Clark's TechCorps.

The programs let volunteers who want to canvass potential supporters by phone obtain lists of registered voters online, something that previously involved calling a campaign office or leaving home for an organized phone bank. Through eBlock, supporters also can get lists for writing letters.

For the New Hampshire primary, Clark supporters used eBlock to contact undecided and likely Clark voters a second time to remind them to vote.

Tools for organization
At the Dean camp, there is StormCenter, built by 26-year-old museum webmaster Aaron Welch. For Iowa's Jan. 19 caucuses, it helped coordinate travel and dispatch thousands of volunteers, many from out of state. A version was customized for this Tuesday's contests in Arizona and New Mexico.

Drumm, 20, reworked an open-source application called Drupal to help distribute campaign information using an emerging technology called Really Simple Syndication, or RSS.

When the campaign has new announcements, policy papers and fund-raising challenges, text and graphics automatically update on more than 100 independently maintained Dean sites. Individuals, too, can see arrange to receive such feeds on their computers.

Another important tool is EventFinder 2.0, which the 30-year-old Haggerty built to organize Clark events.

Supporters enter where they live and get listings of campaign and unofficial events nearby. They can add events and R.S.V.P. using a feature akin to Evite, a commercial, Web-based events planner.

Haggerty is working on features that will regularly e-mail supporters about new events and let Clark supporters with Web sites carry customized events feeds, also using RSS.

"TechCorps allows us to experiment and try things that could potentially be tremendously valuable," said Andrew Hoppin, 32, a Clark project manager.

Josh Lerner, 33, Clark's director of technology, said fewer volunteers would have bothered to program had the campaign kept the code proprietary.

There's also something to be said about free.

Dennis Kucinich's campaign, trailing in money and votes, uses open-source products to run its online forums and photo galleries, webmaster Karen Kilroy said.

Not that the campaigns are dead set on open source.

Separate from DeanSpace, the former Vermont governor's campaign has built "Project Commons" tools for finding events, similar to Clark's EventFinder, and for linking supporters, but the underlying code remains proprietary.

Nor are campaigns opposed to commercial vendors.

Tapping into technology
Clark purchased the $1,500 ArcView software to produce maps that overlay voter and census data, helping the campaign better target resources.

Dean contracts with Upoc Inc. for wireless services, Wavexpress Inc. for video and Convio Inc. for fund-raising and Web development. It also uses Digital Campaigns Inc. for some voter ID services at the national level, even as volunteers like Hynes develop state-tailored tools.

Michelle Kraus, chief executive of Digital Campaigns, said no candidate can match the four years and $5 million her company spent developing its software, which also tracks delegates and manages e-mail newsletters. Kerry and John Edwards also use parts of the package.

But with open source, campaigns don't have to rely on the whims and often differing priorities of software vendors, its advocates say.

Take Clark's event organizer.

Sure, Evite already does much of it, but as a commercial service, Evite president John Foley said the company would be reluctant to share user data that campaigns may want for follow-ups.

With EventFinder, the Clark campaign can control such data, and even later add features, such as a button to donate money.

These political software builders also see a life for their work beyond the current campaigns, including use by nonprofits.

"Right now, we're doing it purely selfishly," Clark's Lerner said. "In the long term, I'd like it to live on, for future people facing the same challenges I was faced with when I got here."

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