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Left-Leaning Bloggers Flex Muscle in Texas

by Joe Garofoli

AUSTIN - Last year online activists inspired by DailyKos.com, the nation's most popular liberal blog, swelled with power as the Democratic presidential candidates debated at their annual convention, asking for their blessing and a little cash - or at least a link to their site.

And this year? In the words of Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos blog on which this Netroots Nation convention of political gate-crashers originally gathered: "We are the mainstream."

The progressive online movement is now faced with its most significant challenge: using its online power to help elect a Democratic president. Doing that will require many of the 2,000 bloggers and activists gathered here since Thursday to leave their laptops behind and perform one of the oldest of political duties: knock on the doors of potential voters - especially in red-state America - and persuade them to vote their way.

Expanding "online to offline" is a dominant theme among the netroots who have gathered for four days in Austin, a sweltering blue island inside red Texas - and the Barack Obama campaign, long a favorite, is leading the way. On Thursday, the campaign talked up its "Neighbor-to-Neighbor" contact program now in 20 states, which hopes to coax a majority of the 1 million ardent Obama supporters roosting on the candidate's Web site, www.barackobama .com, to phone, door-knock or otherwise contact those within walking distance of their homes about the strengths of the presumed Democratic nominee.

"It's not just about being online and saying, 'Wouldn't it be great if?' " said Chris Hughes, the 24-year-old co-founder of Facebook who now directs Obama's online organizing strategy.

The Obama campaign has won plaudits for its groundbreaking use of new media, from the 1 million supporters it has recruited through Facebook - the social networking site used by 80 million people - to the 12,000 grassroots groups (such as the clutch of Bay Area train commuters in "Baby Bullet Riders for Barack" ) that have formed on the candidate's Web site. While former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign is credited as the first to broadly use online tools, Dean's campaign manager Joe Trippi said Friday, "If the (Howard) Dean campaign was the Wright brothers, then Obama was Apollo 11."

Now comes the hard part. Labor Day is when Americans who've ignored the last 20 months of campaigning start to tune in. And the best technology to reach them at this point is still a handshake and a smile.

Hughes said the campaign knows that nothing is more effective than what Obama used to do on the South Side of Chicago: grassroots organizing. Visitors to the campaign site aren't just hit up for money when they register, they're connected to a variety of local events - currently, there are 173 Obama for President get-togethers being advertised on the site in the Bay Area. Bonding offline connects casual supporters with active ones, and so far the effect has been exponential in raising Obama's profile in the relatively short time he's been on the national stage, analysts said. 'Building a movement'

This summer, the campaign created the Obama Organizing Fellows, a program designed to train organizers for the general election and "the struggle it will take after Barack gets elected," Joy Cushman, who coordinates the program, said Saturday. More than 10,000 people applied for the volunteer program earlier this year; 3,600 were accepted for the 30 hour-a-week, six-week long volunteer training. It's an element of what Obama organizers talk regularly about - "building a movement" that would last beyond an Obama presidency.

"We knew that the Internet and Internet alone is not going to win elections. If our people on the Internet were not also organizing on the ground, we're not going to be effective," Obama's deputy campaign manager, Steve Hildebrand, a 22-year veteran of political campaigns, said Saturday. He urged the bloggers in Austin to talk about the 56 million unregistered voters in the United States, particularly people of color and youth, then get out and register them.

"It's not around Barack Obama," said Hildebrand. "It's about building a progressive movement in this country that has a future."

One result of such online-offline organizing: This week Obama's campaign said it raised $52 million in June - the second-highest monthly total in presidential history - with an average donation of $68, much of it coming online.

In a sign of the growing importance of online campaigning, this year the netroots had to share Austin's bars and restaurants with their conservative counterparts. While the Netroots Nation attendees were noshing downtown at a party thrown by GQ magazine and the Huffington Post on Friday, 500 conservatives were holding their first-ever gathering of online activists on the other side of town - the Right Online summit, sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, americansforprosperity.org.

The featured speaker Friday was a Washington figure not often associated with new media - 77-year-old conservative columnist and TV pundit Robert Novak. Conservatives may have dominated talk radio for three decades, but they're admittedly far behind online. Conference organizer Erik Telford said he had to change business cards that read "New Media Manager" because "people kept asking me, 'Are you the new media manager.' " Telford paused. "Yeah, it's pretty bad."

A Friday session called "New Media and the Conservative Movement" sounded like a digital 12-step program, with the participants admitting that they were behind the online curve and were ready for help. The few dozen in attendance - a mixture of digitally savvy Ron Paul libertarians, white-haired traditional conservatives and young Facebook devotees - debated how and why to adopt new online tools. One suggested holding your nose and checking out the Web site of the liberal MoveOn.org - just to see how it's organized.

"They (liberals) are developing community and we are really not doing that," said Emily Zanotti, online community manager for the Sam Adams Alliance (samadamsalliance.org), a conservative online outfit that focuses on government transparency.

'We're missing the boat'

"The right just doesn't get it and we're missing the boat," said Eric Odom, her colleague at Sam Adams.

Some believe conservatives are far behind in online organizing. "They're at least an election cycle behind," said Peter Leyden, a San Francisco Democratic strategist who has been on the leading edge of using new media in political campaigns.

Like many liberals, Leyden surveyed the wreckage of the 2004 defeat of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and realized that the progressives needed a bottom-up strategy divorced from Washington political consultants.

"Four years ago, it was pretty much the dark ages for progressives," Leyden said. "But the new tools showed that you don't need 1,500 staffers to contact 10,000 people. Technology makes it all scalable and much quicker."

Now, the conference has become a mandatory stop for liberals looking to rouse support from this hyper-engaged slice of the Internet. On Saturday, both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and her surprise guest, former Vice President Al Gore, appeared to talk up Gore's proposal to wean the nation off of nonrenewable fuels.

"Thanks to all of the people who have made this remarkable movement possible," Gore said. Informing people about public affairs, Gore said, "is bringing a great new hope that we can reclaim the birthright of this nation."

© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.

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