Howard Dean should forget about politics. If his presidential aspirations don’t materialize, he could make a fortune in eMarketing.

He’s managed to do something that and dozens of big-name retailers haven’t, and that’s make money online. He’s also figured out how to use the web and its unique set of communications tools to rally support and spur direct action at the local level.

His web site, Dean for America, is worth checking out, as it provides a virtual textbook on state-of-the-art interactivity and smart content.

You can listen to a phone call, view campaign photographs and interviews, watch a video, organize a neighborhood meeting, find out about local events, download a contact sheet and script, contribute money, buy a Dean t-shirt, or join the campaign–all with just a click or two.

Even if Dean’s policies and proposals give you the willies, his “Grassroots Organizing School” is worth investigating. It provides one of the best primers for community outreach I’ve seen in any format, let alone on the web.

This “school” is actually a series of eight online modules, each focusing on a particular strategy for mobilizing support: how to reach out in your community (and who to talk to), how to approach people with your message, how to get to know your stakeholders (and what they value), how to “get out the vote,” how to plan and organize outreach events, and so on. There’s even a list of talking points and guidelines for how to respond to questions and challenges.

Education advocates would be wise to take notes, whether they’re trying to get parents engaged in their children’s education, highlight issues, organize support for a bond issue, or promote school board candidates.

School foundation leaders, grant writers, and fundraisers, meanwhile, might want to replicate the Dean campaign’s electronic newsletter and the easy-to-use, secure contributions and referrals functions of its web site.

Many of today’s time-pressed parents, especially dual-income professionals, would appreciate the opportunity to contribute to their children’s schools without having to foist wrapping paper, candy, magazine subscriptions, and restaurant coupon books on their unsuspecting neighbors and co-workers–many of whom are peddling the same stuff for their own kids.

Dean’s cost-effective, web-based strategy seems to be working. Dean for America already has raised more than $14.8 million in a single quarter, outstripping all other Democrats, including tech-savvy former President Clinton, whose frequently maligned fundraising database was the stuff of legends.

Bloggers (web-based self-publishers and diarists) will love Dean’s “Meetup” function, which connects Dean aficionados across the country with other like-minded activists on the first Wednesday of every month.

So far, more than 120,000 Dean supporters have signed up, according to the web site’s tally, which is updated continuously.

Like many Americans, I haven’t made up my mind whom I’m going to support in the primaries, let alone in next year’s general election.

And I’m not going to predict the winner. Too much hinges on the economy, Iraq, terrorism, and other volatile issues.

One thing I am certain of, however, is that the Dean for America group is on to something very powerful, and both politics and public relations might never be the same.

See these related links:

Dean for America

Grassroots Organizing School

Blogger (free web publishing utility)

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.