MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) _ The Internet is to blame for a dramatic increase in the number of hate groups operating in the United States, the Southern Poverty Law Center said.

Their ranks swelled to 537 last year, up from 474 in 1997, the center said Tuesday in its annual Intelligence Project report.

``The Internet is allowing the white supremacy movement to reach places it has never reached before _ middle- and upper-middle class, college-bound teens,'' said Mark Potok, a researcher for the center.

``The movement is terribly interested in developing the leadership cadre of tomorrow,'' he said. ``As a rule, they're no longer interested in recruiting street thugs, people to beat up blacks and gays in bars.''

Groups also use radio, magazines, the newspaper of the White Aryan Resistance and telephone hotlines, the report said.

``The Internet has, in a sense, empowered the white supremacy community,'' Potok said. ``Very often, a `hater' was an isolated person, standing in their living room and shaking their fist at the sky.

``That same person, instead of feeling like an isolated retrograde, wakes up in the morning, turns on the computer and he's got 25 messages,'' Potok said. ``He feels like he is part of a movement that is happening.''

The report counts Klan, neo-Nazi, skinhead, Christian Identity and black separatist groups as hate groups. Included on the list were 33 chapters of the Council of Conservative Citizens, which gained attention last month following reports that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., spoke at one of its functions.

The CCC has denied it is a racist organization. Lott has denied any affiliation with the group.

Florida led the nation in 1998 with 38 hate groups, followed by California with 36, Texas with 31, Pennsylvania with 27 and Alabama with 25.