YouTube or YouLose?

The Internet's ability to energize apathetic voters may be put to the acid test this election season as more candidates look to the Web to build support -- and all-important campaign dollars.

Campaigns began to embrace the Web in a big way four years ago, calling the phenomenon "the future of campaigning" and "transforming politics."

Those phrases were used to describe Howard Dean's 2004 presidential primary bid because of its savvy use of the Internet to mobilize supporters and raise money. Of course, even after encouraging hundreds of thousands of people to donate money, Dean's campaign fizzled after an over-the-top offline rant by the candidate to his supporters. Voters went on to pick John Kerry to be the Democratic candidate.

Those same phrases are now being used to describe tonight's CNN/YouTube debate, Barack Obama's Internet-savvy supporters and Ron Paul's online fundraising machine.

One thing is clear: The Internet is a far more potent force in politics than it was four years ago.

"It's a bigger part of our society," said Andrew Rasiej, a co-founder of the nonpartisan Web site, who thinks that Obama will fare better than Dean for a number of reasons. "A lot of people who worked for Dean and learned for that experience work for Obama now. And there are better tools available now such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube. Those are pretty strong examples of how the dynamics have changed."

Tonight's debate will feature all eight Democratic candidates answering voters' questions submitted via video. "This debate offers a real chance to bring new people into the political process," said John G. Palfrey, the director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

"I think what the Internet can do is it can give candidates a much bigger platform, a much quicker platform that would have been possible 20 years ago," said John Hlinko, a grass-roots campaign expert who has worked with and helped John Edwards with his first podcast. "The big question is when people are watching [tonight's debate], does it resonate?"

"Things have changed but not completely," said Palfrey, comparing the use of the Internet in political campaigns to e-commerce. "You still have to convince voters to go to the polls and raise money. The Internet is becoming a more important force in politics, but this is not the entire populace you're talking about."

Online fundraising and the use of YouTube have helped candidates who are willing to take a risk, Palfrey said. Obama has four times as many Facebook friends as Clinton, and Paul has more Facebook and MySpace friends than the Republican front-runners. Both candidates have more than 2 million YouTube views apiece, outdrawing their competitors.

But that doesn't seem to be hurting the candidates who are less popular on the Internet. "Look at Rudy Giuliani, who has no online presence to speak of," said Palfrey. "His Web site is more of a brochure and less a meaningful engaged two-way conversation type of site. But he's been doing just fine."

As for tonight's debate, he thinks that it represents a chance to bring new people into the political process. Questions that have been suggested by YouTube users range from the serious, touching on the crisis in Darfur and health insurance, to the offbeat, such as a seven-second clip of a black cat asking. "How can you protect my food in the future?"

Hlinko is excited about the debate's potential but understands that it might not reach a broad audience.

"You'd think that even hearing the words 'YouTube' would frighten a lot of people who are older," he says. "No doubt people who hear about this and are intrigued by it, the freewheeling questions, will be overwhelmingly on the grass-roots side. But I like to think that it's part of a trend and pretty soon YouTube will be a method of asking questions."

Whether the Internet will really transform the race for the White House this time around, of course, is an open question, especially in a presidential contest that's still more than 15 months away.

Perhaps the Web will just mobilize tech heads and college students and fail to have any impact on that silent majority of Americans who actually go to the polls and vote.

After all, Obama still trails Hillary Clinton in the opinion polls and Paul's currently polling fourth behind the more traditional campaigns run by Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain.