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At 'Netroots Nation,' Obama Campaign Goes to Ground

By Garance Franke-Ruta
AUSTIN -- As liberal bloggers and the people who read them gather in Texas's capital city and settle into a groove for their third annual convention, it is somehow fitting that presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama, who appeared at the conference last year, is as far away as can be.

The conference formerly known as Yearly Kos was enlivened for its first two years by the frisson of insiders and outsiders coming together. Former Virginia governor Mark Warner feted the bloggerati with chocolate fountains and plentiful booze in Las Vegas in 2006, and, the following year, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama and former senator John Edwards took part in a candidate forum co-moderated by a Daily Kos blogger and a reporter for The New York Times.

This year, the event has been renamed Netroots Nation, and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has less need to court this crowd, having proven himself a better organizer than they -- and on a far grander scale - and the primary contest having been decided.

The presidential-candidate speakers of previous years have given way to a mélange of former office-holders (Harold Ford Jr., Don Siegelman) and party stalwarts (Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi), giving the conference a more subdued, settled vibe. But that doesn't mean an irreparable breach between the netroots and the Obama campaign, which is here in force.

"While he's not here, they've definitely been participatory," said Cheryl Contee, a Netroots Nation board member, of the Obama campaign. "They're very active. ... They are definitely involved and committed to working with the netroots to elect Obama in 2008."

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who coordinates, the Obama campaign's wildly successful online social networking site, spoke at a training workshop for activists and bloggers here yesterday, notes Josh Orton, political director for Netroots Nation (and also the former deputy new media director for the Barack Obama campaign).

The nearly day-long "training for American" forum "for Democratic activists and leaders" was co-sponsored by the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee, and it featured panels on the ground game for 2008, online social networking strategies and holding successful messaging conversations with neighbors. The DNC's Matt Ortega sent out this message across his Facebook network after the training's conclusion: "if you're looking a job while at #NN08 and want to elect Barack Obama the next POTUS, come see me in Ballroom G. 4:37pm."

Tomorrow, Obama deputy national campaign director Steve Hildebrand will sit on a panel on organizing strategy, "Organizing Change: Obama Grassroots." Obama new media director Joe Rospars is here for a panel, as well, accompanied by Obama inhouse blogger Sam Graham-Felsen.

Indeed, the Obama-blogger relationship appears less to have soured than to have moved from the intimacy and familiarity of the earliest stages of a primary campaign, when bloggers and Iowans alike were courted by the candidate himself at close range, to the distant and more instrumental relationships that characterize general election contests. Today, if the panels Obama staffers are on here are any indication, bloggers are of interest to the campaign mainly for their potential work in on-the-ground organizing and messaging.

And while some highly-visible bloggers have been critical of Obama's stance on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act on their blogs, J.D. Gins, a Texas field organizer from Obama for America staffing the Obama table, said that, at the conference, "overwhelmingly it's been a positive reception." Of the hundreds of people who've stopped by, only two have wanted to engage in criticism of the Obama campaign, he said.

"They're excited for the buttons and stickers. They're excited about Obama," he added, handing me an Obama "50 State Campaign" button with a "union made promotional item" sticker on the back. "We're going for the 50-state strategy."

Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of the Daily Kos blog and a longtime proponent of that very strategy, noted at a plenary session with former representative Ford (D-Tenn.), "There may have been some grumbling" about some of Obama's general election positions, "but it wasn't mass discontent."

By Post Editor  |  July 18, 2008; 4:41 PM ET
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