Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s scored another publicity coup this week, finishing a solid first in the PAC online primary that became a high-stakes test of the appeal of the contenders for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

Dean won 139,360 votes, almost 44 percent of those cast in voting Wednesday and Thursday by members of the progressive online activist network. Dean was expected to run well in the voting, which took place the week of his official announcement of candidacy and that was played to his strengths among younger, more web-savvy Democrats. Dean backers focused a good deal of energy on the virtual primary, dispatching tens of thousands of emails urging supporters to register at the site and vote for the increasingly high-profile candidate.

“On Monday, I stood in Burlington, Vermont and said that my campaign — our campaign — was built on ‘mouse pads, shoe leather, and hope.’ Today, we see just how far that combination can go: We have won the primary by a landslide,” Dean said while campaigning in California Friday.

But Dean did not score the 50 percent of the vote needed to secure a coveted endorsement from the PAC. PAC helped raise more than $4 million in online contributions for progressive candidates in 2002, and has come to be seen as one of the most effective grassroots fund-raising vehicles on the left.

Dean’s appeal to MoveOn members, who share many of the anti-war and socially progressive stances he has taken so far in the campaign, was blunted by the appeal of Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who has worked hard to identify himself as the most aggressively anti-war contender in the race. In the computer-driven campaigning before the vote, Kucinich backers sent thousands of emails urging MoveOn members to “Vote for the Genuine Peace Candidate,” and their efforts appear to have had a significant impact on the process.

Though his candidacy has been largely ignored by major media outlets that have given considerable coverage to Dean and other “first-tier” contenders, Kucinich ran a solid second in the MoveOn voting, winning 76,000 votes for almost 24 percent of the total. “I don’t think the media can continue to ignore Kucinich after this,” said Lee Brown, co-chair of Kucinich’s campaign in Wisconsin, which will hold a critical primary on February 17. “Even though Dennis Kucinich’s campaign has gotten a lot less attention than the Dean campaign, people are getting the message. Kucinich is the real peace candidate, and the real progressive in this race.”

Third-place went to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who is often portrayed as the frontrunner in the increasingly intense Democratic contest. Kerry’s vote to authorize President Bush to use the military in Iraq put him at odds with the position of many MoveOn members, but he has scored points since with aggressive criticism of the administration’s handling of international relations. The Massachusetts senator won 49,973 votes, or about 16 percent.

None of the other candidates got more than 3.5 percent of the vote in the virtual primary, which drew more voters – 317,639 members participated — than the 2000 Iowa Democratic caucuses and New Hampshire Democratic primary. The top-three finishes by Dean, Kucinich and Kerry were expected, as they were the candidates who were allowed to make direct pitches to MoveOn members in the days before the voting. The trio were given that opportunity by MoveOn organizers after they a poll last month of members showed them to be the favorite contenders.

Backers of former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, made noise about pulling out of the competition, but decided in the end to remain in the running. Gephardt ended up in fifth place (2.4 percent), behind the top-three candidates and North Carolina Senator John Edwards (3.2 percent), but ahead of Florida Senator Bob Graham (2.2 percent) , former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun (2.2 percent), Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman (1.9 percent) and the Rev. Al Sharpton (0.5 percent.) Retired General Wesley Clark, who was not on the ballot but who is pondering a candidacy, received almost 3,000 votes and close to 1 percent of the vote.

While PAC will not endorse a candidate at this time, the online primary process saw 49,132 participants pledge $1.75 million in contributions to their favorite candidates. Some 54,730 participants pledged to volunteer for the candidate they supported, while 77,192 authorized MoveOn to pass on their e-mail address to their candidate.

“Participation far exceeded our expectations,” said Wes Boyd, the treasurer of PAC. “Our most important objectives have already been met: Early Democratic grassroots involvement; increased contributions and volunteer support for each campaign; and mobilization of the Democratic base to defeat George Bush.”