WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government today gave a major boost to political fund raising in cyberspace, ruling that presidential candidates can qualify for federal campaign assistance for donations they raise over the Internet.

The Federal Election Commission, which oversees campaign laws, voted 6-0 to allow presidential candidates who take credit card donations on their Web sites to qualify for federal matching dollars during the primary elections.

Former Sen. Bill Bradley, who is challenging Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination, had asked the FEC earlier this spring to qualify his Internet donations for the federal aid.

The ruling will have a sweeping effect for the major presidential candidates, all of whom have Web sites.

``We recognize the reality that the Internet is here and a big part of our life,'' FEC Chairman Scott Thomas said after the vote. ``We need to let it be used freely.''

Since federal campaign laws were overhauled in the aftermath of Watergate, taxpayers have provided assistance to presidential candidates who agree to spending limits during the primary elections.

The government provides dollar-for-dollar matching for the first $250 of each individual contribution that a qualified candidate receives during the primary elections.

But that law never addressed the possibility that candidates would one day raise money over the Internet, where the easiest way to make a donation is via credit card. The existing FEC regulation had in fact forbidden candidates from collecting federal matching funds on such donations.

The FEC voted to allow presidential campaigns to begin collecting credit card donations in anticipation of receiving matching funds for them next Jan. 1. That means credit card donations will be treated the same as those candidates receive in the mail or at fund-raisers.

The commission is made up of six members split evenly along party lines. They signaled at a hearing last month their willingness to change the rules to open up fund raising in cyberspace.

Barring disapproval from the Congress or the president, the new regulations would take effect in a few months.

The FEC will require the campaigns to maintain security procedures _ the details of which are still to be worked out _ to avoid illegal donations via corporate credit cards or from foreigners.

Many commission members, however, had stressed that it would be unfair to place more restrictions on credit card donations than on more traditional forms like checks or money orders.

Initially, FEC staff was concerned about the security matter and the possibility that donors could use the Internet to evade campaign laws. But supporters argued those concerns were overblown in an era when Americans make billions of dollars of purchases over the Internet.

One of the early advocates of the changes was former FEC Chairman Trevor Potter, who argued that the Internet provided a ``perfect mechanism for small donors'' to get involved in presidential campaigns.