Saturday, June 10, 2006

Gathering Highlights Power of the Blog

The New York Times
Gathering Highlights Power of the Blog

LAS VEGAS, June 9 — If any more proof were needed of the rising influence of bloggers — at least for the Democratic Party — it could be found here on Friday on the Las Vegas Strip, where the old and new worlds of American politics engaged in a slightly awkward if mostly entertaining clash of a meeting.

There were the bloggers — nearly a thousand of them, many of them familiar names by now — emerging from the shadows of their computers for a three-day blur of workshops, panels and speeches about politics, the power of the Internet and the shortcomings of the Washington media. And right behind them was a parade of prospective Democratic presidential candidates and party leaders, their presence a tribute to just how much the often rowdy voices of the Web have been absorbed into the very political process they frequently disdain, much to the amazement, and perhaps discomfort, of some of the bloggers themselves.

"I see you guys as agents of advocacy — that's why I'm here," said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democrat and a prospective 2008 presidential candidate, who flew here at the last minute to attend the YearlyKos 2006 Convention. Bloggers, Mr. Richardson said later, "are a major voice in American politics."

They may think of themselves as rebels, separate from mainstream politics and media. But by the end of a day on which the convention halls were shoulder to shoulder with bloggers, Democratic operatives, candidates and Washington reporters, it seemed that bloggers were well on the way to becoming — dare we say it? — part of the American political establishment. Indeed, the convention, the first of what organizers said would become an annual event, seems on the way to becoming as much a part of the Democratic political circuit as the Iowa State Fair.

"It's 2006, and I think we have arrived," Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the Daily Kos and the man for whom the conference was named, announced after being greeted with the kind of reception Elvis, or at least Wayne Newton to a more traditional Las Vegas audience, might have received had he walked into the dowdy ballroom at the Riviera Hotel and Casino. (Mr. Moulitsas was accompanied by a media adviser and bloggers snapped his picture whenever they spotted him.)

"Both parties have failed us," Mr. Moulitsas said. "Republicans have failed us because they can't govern. Democrats have failed because they can't get elected. So now it's our turn."

The ceremony and self-celebration notwithstanding, the actual extent of the blogging community's power is still unclear. For one thing, it was hard to find a single Republican in the crowd here, though organizers insisted that a few had registered. For another, as the presidential campaign of Howard Dean demonstrated in 2004, the excitement and energy of the Web does not necessarily translate into winning at the polls.

"I do believe that each day, they have more impact," said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, who will deliver the keynote speech to the group on Saturday night. "Now how far that will go, I don't think we know that yet."

But, Mr. Reid added: "One of the reasons I so admire them is they have the ability to spread the truth like no entities I've dealt with in recent years. We could never have won the battle to stop privatization of Social Security without them."

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, widely viewed as a leading candidate for her party's presidential nomination, declined an invitation to attend. Her spokeswoman, Lorraine Voles, said Mrs. Clinton had obligations in New York this weekend. Mrs. Clinton is highly unpopular with this crowd, in no small part because she supported going to war in Iraq.

"Oh my God, no way!" Mr. Moulitsas said when asked whether Mrs. Clinton was popular here.

Still, there was no shortage of Democratic luminaries on display. Mark Warner, the former governor of Virginia and a likely candidate for president in 2008, invited everyone on hand to a reception at the Stratosphere Hotel Casino on Friday. He and Mr. Dean, the Democratic National Committee chairman, are scheduled to speak on Saturday.

Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who ran for president in 2004 and said he might run again in 2008, was spotted on Thursday night looking somewhat out of place as he roamed the halls in a pin-striped suit before heading to the Hard Rock Cafe to hold his own reception for bloggers. ("I just flew in from Washington from a business meeting," he explained, promising that the suit was old and tattered.)

Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, another potential 2008 Democratic candidate, was on the way to participate in a forum on education.

And for whatever disdain that could be picked up toward mainstream politicians and news media, it seems fair to say that the bloggers and the people who love them were fascinated by their favorite targets. Jennifer Palmieri, a deputy White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton, held a "pundit project training," where she told bloggers how to present themselves in television interviews — what to wear, how to sit and what to say.

And a well-known columnist from a major metropolitan newspaper — this one — was repeatedly stopped by bloggers requesting that she pose for photos with them, as they expressed admiration for her work. (That would be Maureen Dowd.)

As became clear from the rather large and diverse crowd here, the blogosphere has become for the left what talk radio has been for the right: a way of organizing and communicating to supporters. Blogging is nowhere near the force among Republicans as it is among Democrats, and talk radio is a much more effective tool for Republicans.

"We don't spend a lot of time in cars, but we do spend a lot of time on the Internet," said Jerome Armstrong, a blogging pioneer and a senior adviser to Mr. Warner, who has been the most aggressive among the prospective 2008 candidates in courting this community.

Their political opinions were, not surprisingly, hard to mistake. With little doubt, the most unpopular Democrat around was probably Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, scorned for his frequent support of President Bush's policies. Mr. Lieberman is facing a primary challenge from Ned Lamont, a cable television executive, that should offer a pretty good test of the political impact of this world. Lamont T-shirts and buttons were in abundance.

"Lieberman is going to lose this one," Mr. Moulitsas said.

This unlikely location for a bloggers' convention was chosen not because this crowd has any particular affinity for gambling, organizers said, but because rooms were cheap ($99). The floors were filled with people, laptops perched on their legs, typing away.

Mr. Richardson's visit was interesting in that he decided to come so late that his name did not appear on any programs; a hand-lettered sign announced a breakfast with him on Friday morning. Still, Mr. Richardson arched an eyebrow when asked whether he had suddenly decided to fly in after learning that many of his prospective rivals for 2008 were here and that Mr. Warner, in particular, was giving a major address on Saturday.

"Warner?" Mr. Richardson responded with a hint of a smile. "Is he here?"