Cokie and Steven Roberts

In 1996, Bob Dole promoted his Web site at many public events. Four years later, John McCain pioneered fund raising over the Internet. In 2004, Howard Dean attracted thousands of online volunteers to his cause.

None of them came close to winning the presidency. And that history should serve as a warning to Barack Obama, who's currently busting all records for online donations. The Internet has enormous potential for reshaping the political process. But it's still just a tool, not a magic lamp.

The basic rules remain the same. Whether a voter scratches an "X" on a piece of paper or touches a computer screen, politics has one purpose: winning. Mark SooHoo, an adviser to McCain, is on target when he says: "Politics at its core is about social networking. What we're doing is putting a new spin on things, but really at the end of the day, the goal hasn't changed."

But even the best networks have their limits. A candidate needs a compelling theme and appealing personality that connects with average people and motivates them to vote. No matter how many e-mails or text messages you send out, no matter how many clever videos you post on your Web site, what you say is still more important than where you say it.

What Obama has achieved so far, however, is pretty impressive. More than a quarter of a million people have donated to his campaign. He raised $32 million in the last three months, with $10.3 million coming from the Internet. As a strategist for Hillary Clinton conceded to Time's Karen Tumulty: "He's got a real buzz about him."

Obama's success partly reflects larger trends. Computers are becoming commonplace, even in poor or minority households. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports one example: The number of African-Americans with broadband Internet connections has tripled since the last election. And then there's the "Amazon effect": Many Americans have become increasingly comfortable using a credit card to spend or donate money online.

But other candidates using the same technology are not as successful. What makes Obama different is that "real buzz" he generates. People who feel inspired by a speech or an interview can act on their impulse with a few mouse clicks. No coupons, no checks, no stamps, no waiting.

Today, Obama has $34.5 million in the bank, slightly more than Hillary Clinton, and far more than the top seven Republicans. More important, 90 percent of Obama's online contributors gave less than $100. Since the legal limit is $2,300 for each individual (in the primaries), Obama's fund-raising potential in the months ahead is obviously enormous.

"For a lot of these people, it won't be the last time they give," Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, told The New York Times. "And it is also going to be the foundation of an organization."

Here's where it gets interesting. Every one of his 258,000 contributors can at least in theory become a campaign organizer and fund-raiser. Many voters today don't just passively receive information online; instead, they talk back and pass it on. As Plouffe describes Obama's game plan: "You can't look at it as a moment in time, it's an investment."

Dean floundered for many reasons, but that comment highlights one of them: He saw his database of names as an end rather than a means. He didn't know how to translate his resource into a campaign structure on the ground. At this point in the cycle, Dean had spent about $300,000 building an organization in Iowa and New Hampshire. Obama has spent more than four times that amount.

But other problems are still lurking out there. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman warns that Obama like Dean four years ago is in danger of attracting "more elite Democrats" who have "disposable income" and "can create a lot of buzz." But those voters are "not sufficient to win a nomination."

At times, Dean's campaign sounded like a dating service or an encounter group. The process of creating networks and connecting with like-minded people was so exciting that the real aim of the enterprise, electing the candidate to office, seemed to fade into the background.

Obama has to avoid that mistake. He has to remember that "real buzz" means little unless it's translated into real work and real votes. And he has to remember that all the technology in the world won't elect a candidate with nothing to say. If he learns those lessons, Hillary has real reasons to worry.

Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.