The Spirit of Howard Dean

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More than two years ago, after Howard Dean's presidential campaign crashed and burned in the Iowa primary, the conventional wisdom was that his enthusiastic Internet supporters may have been able to raise millions online, but didn't pack much political power. When Dean invited them to knock on doors and make phones calls in Iowa in the final days of the primary, their rabid enthusiasm seemed to turn off Iowans — he lost there, and in 25 straight primaries. And once Dean's campaign died, the liberal bloggers' role in the presidential election was much smaller.

But the blogosphere that first emerged to raise millions for Dean has grown and matured, and the gang of bloggers, commenters and readers has galvanized to be a small political force. Last weekend, as more than 800 laptop-toting lawyers, economists, teachers, housewives and others from around the country showed up for a Las Vegas convention put on by the liberal blog Daily Kos, they were joined by three members of Congress, four presidential candidates and at least seven staffers from the office of former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, one of the 2008 hopefuls. Warner spent thousands on a rooftop bash that included chocolate fountains and a sushi bar, and Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and another potential candidate, flattered the bloggers as if they were a bunch of campaign fundraisers about to hand him checks. Meeting with a few dozen of them in a hotel suite, Richardson, wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a blue blazer, said he spent so much time on in his work as governor he had little to read anything beyond "the New York Times and a few of your blogs." Richardson told the crowd, "I'm mainly here to acknowledge you guys are big players."

But the conference was in many ways the manifestation of a candidate past rather than one of the future. The man behind both the Daily Kos and the convention, Markos Moulitsas, made his name first as an enthusiastic online supporter of Dean, who now chairs the Democratic National Committee. Many of the bloggers first became interested in politics during the Dean campaign, and still have enough enthusiasm about the former Vermont governor that some at the convention were handing out "Dean for America" stickers, buttons and T-shirts from his long-over presidential campaign. Former Dean staffers, from former Internet adviser and popular blogger Jerome Armstrong to ex-campaign manager Joe Trippi, were speakers at many of the hour-long panels held at the convention.

And even though many of the attendees might have backed other candidates in 2004, the rhetoric of the convention sounded much like Dean's campaign. Dean drew his support in 2003 and 2004 from liberals angry that leading Democrats in Washington were unwilling to attack President Bush, instead focusing on winning elections by moving to the center. And many of the bloggers still seemed frustrated by congressional Democrats, except for the few they've embraced, like Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who was also at the convention. "They're afraid of taking strong positions," said Jane Hamsher, who runs a popular liberal blog called firedoglake. "They're embrassed by progressives." AmericaBlog's John Aravosis said congressional Democrats should attack President Bush on privacy issues and said the clearest sign it was a good idea was "the Democrats haven't done anything on it."

In Washington, much of the talk is about Democrats taking back the House. And the bloggers are intensely interested in congressional races; Daily Kos covers the 2006 campaigns more thoroughly than the Washington Post. But the bloggers, like Dean, seem as energized about building a better Democratic Party for the future as they are trying to win in 2006. "We need a long-term plan that goes past the midterm elections," said Ari Melber, a blogger for Huffington Post. Dean's idea of spending money on putting organizers in all 50 states, rather than directing it only to key congressional races this year, is derided in Washington, but the bloggers clapped loudly when Dean spoke about it. Sessions on "War, Foreign Policy and Activism" and "Political Journalism: Problems and Solutions" were full of attendees, while more than half the chairs were empty as Tom Vilsack, the Iowa governor and potential 2008 candidate, spoke about education. Two of the leaders of the popular liberal site, Chris Bowers and Matt Stoller, announced they would start using Blogpac, one of the fundraising arms of the liberal blogs, to raise money to "defend the Netroots" by fighting laws that might limit Internet access, rather than giving money to specific congressional candidates, as it has in the past.

In fact, in Las Vegas, the most energized discussion about any political race concerned a Senate seat in Connecticut already held by a Democrat. It seemed that half the people at the convention were wearing either a "Ned Lamont for Senate" button or the angrier version of the same message — a button dubbed "The Kiss," showing President Bush putting his lips on the right cheek of Senator Joe Lieberman at the State of the Union in 2005. The bloggers have focused much of their energy and money this year in supporting Lamont's campaign to defeat Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary this August, believing that one of the best ways to improve the Democratic Party is to purge it of people like Lieberman. Only George W. Bush was attacked at the conference more than Lieberman.

But beating Lieberman would be important for bloggers not just because he's a pro-war Democrat they hate. The bloggers, for all the attention they get from potential President candidates, are often ignored in Washington for the same reason their champion Howard Dean is: they haven't won anything. In 2004, Daily Kos aggressively pushed and raised money for 15 congressional candidates; all of them lost. (To be fair, the blog got involved in some of the campaigns because they were long shots.) "If I had their record, I wouldn't be eating right now," said one veteran Democratic consultant about the bloggers. In November, some of the bloggers' favorites, such as Senate candidate Jon Tester in Montana and Darcy Burner in a House district near Seattle, are running in key races that Democrats need to win if they are to take back the House or the Senate. And while some bloggers say just running liberal candidates against incumbents like Lieberman is enough, others concede that they need to actually beat Lieberman, or a Republican in a key state, to help validate their movement. "If you keep losing, at a certain point it starts to hurt," says Bob Fertik, who blogs at a site called "Victories are important."