WASHINGTON (AP) _ With a click and a credit card, Americans will be able to send contributions to presidential hopefuls over the Internet and earn the candidates extra financial assistance from the government.

The Federal Election Commission gave a major boost to fund raising in cyberspace on Thursday, agreeing to make credit card donations eligible for the federal matching funds presidential candidates receive.

``We recognize the reality that the Internet is here and a big part of our life,'' FEC Chairman Scott Thomas said after the 6-0 vote. ``We need to let it be used freely.''

Eager to find new outlets for money, financially struggling GOP presidential hopeful Lamar Alexander immediately hailed the decision as the ``greatest innovation in how we conduct campaigns since the advent of television.''

Former Sen. Bill Bradley, who is challenging Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic nomination, prompted the ruling by asking the FEC this spring to qualify his Internet donations for the federal aid.

While it was legal for candidates to accept donations over the Internet, the FEC had refused until Thursday to count those donations toward the millions in matching dollars the presidential candidates receive each election.

Under Watergate-era campaign finance laws, the government matches the first $250 of each individual contribution that a presidential candidate receives. In return, the candidate agrees to strict spending limits.

``That's a big victory for us,'' Bradley said. ``We felt from the beginning that the Internet was going to be a big part of what we did.''

Even before the decision, Bradley had begun raising money over the Internet _ $169,000 through this month.

Congress has 30 days in which it could overturn the new rules, which will apply to all contributions received since Jan. 1.

The ruling will have a sweeping effect for the major candidates, all of whom have Web sites. Experts said it will prompt campaigns to make their fund-raising appeals by e-mail, a much cheaper option than traditional phone banks and letter solicitations.

``This is the first step toward on-line fund raising, which will be the technology in the future that direct mail was 10 years ago and phone calls were 10 years before that,'' said Anthony Corrado, a government professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

Vice President Al Gore and Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, have also been raising money via the Internet, but without credit cards. They ask potential contributors to print out a form on their Web sites and mail it with a check.

The vice president has raised at least $17,000 that way, while Kasich has taken in more than $23,000, aides said.

Alexander, who cut staff this month because of slow fund raising, said the Internet will enable candidates to reach out to more prospective donors.

``As soon as candidates develop techniques and people become comfortable making contributions on the Internet, it will greatly broaden the base of contributions,'' Alexander predicted.

It costs virtually nothing to send e-mails, and it's much faster than direct mail.

A candidate hoping to capitalize on a strong showing in Iowa or New Hampshire could quickly e-mail supporters seeking funds to continue the campaign, and contributors could donate instantly by credit card through the Web site, Corrado said.

``It could save you nine or 10 days at a time when you don't have nine or 10 days,'' he said.