CHICAGO — The liberal online political activists gathered here this week found many reasons to celebrate: the growth in their numbers at the second Yearly Kos Convention, a new Democratic majority in Congress, and their power to attract the top contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination to a debate this afternoon.
The 1,500 bloggers, organizers and partisans at the convention loudly cheered those markers of their emerging influence. But they also spent much of their time talking about expanding their foothold as a political force.
"You can see a real noticeable change in the agenda in Washington already," said Kerry Foret, a Kentucky man who runs the social networking website Diatribune. "We are talking about the war in Iraq and not a flag-burning amendment or some other distraction. Still, people are dissatisfied and want more."
The activists made it clear that they wanted most of all a swift end to the war in Iraq, universal healthcare and the election of a Democratic president.
No one candidate has emerged as a favorite for 2008, although former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have been popular in unscientific surveys on Daily Kos, the popular liberal blog that lends its name to the conference.
Simon Rosenberg, president of the liberal think tank New Democratic Network, told a panel Friday that Democrats had a "historic opportunity" to create a lasting Democratic majority, much as Franklin Roosevelt did in 1932.
"We have the opportunity to put the Republicans away for a generation," Rosenberg said. "But it's not just going to happen -- you have to make it happen."
Liberals heralded the first Kos convention last summer in Las Vegas as a watershed moment in online activism. Berkeley-based Markos Moulitsas lent his Daily Kos blog handle but said he left the planning to others, mostly volunteers.
They boasted this year that the gathering had grown in many ways -- from 1,000 to 1,500 participants, from 150 to 250 media outlets, with a tripling of sponsorships from unions and other liberal-leaning organizations to $250,000.
At workshops and panel discussions, many attendees struggled with how to strike the right balance between their previous renegade stance and still work cooperatively enough with Democratic Party institutions to win elections.
Bob Fertik, a 50-year-old from New York City, complained that convention organizers denied his group the chance to put on a workshop to discuss the possible impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
"People want to end the abuses of the power of the presidency that have been going on, including the war, including torture, including [Hurricane] Katrina," said Fertik, a onetime computer consultant and publisher.
But Fertik conceded he wasn't too angry about it. "There hasn't been a progressive movement since the 1960s," he said, "and we are creating one here."
Others at the conference talked of creating more alliances with the Democratic Party.
"We have to translate this online activity into real, on-the- ground passion," said Steve Francis, an economist from South Bend, Ind., and a 2006 congressional candidate. "We sometimes perhaps blog too much and don't knock on doors enough."
Ali Savino, a promoter of new blogs at the Center for Independent Media, urged outreach not just to traditional political websites but to outlets as diverse as cooking sites (to promote issues such as food safety and agriculture reform) or even Perez Hilton's gossip site, which she said was known to attract a large gay and transgender audience.
In his keynote address, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean assured the gathering that considerable progress had been made by the new Democratic Congress. He pointed to ethics legislation and a new minimum wage and drew a roar of approval when he promised Democrats would keep "voting and voting and voting" to try to force a quicker end to the Iraq war.
Most of the Democratic presidential candidates have been well-represented at the convention, their campaign staffers out in force, particularly addressing how they will approach Internet activists. Obama's Internet advisor said the senator had attracted more than 250,000 online donors and tried to use each contact to "get people to take the next step" -- whether to wear a button, canvass their neighborhood or host an Obama party.
Edwards' campaign workers emphasized how the former senator tried to engage supporters with direct actions -- beach cleanups, food drives -- even before the start of the active campaign season.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut scored a coup when he did verbal combat with conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly. In the days leading up to the convention, O'Reilly hammered the Kos website for what he called "hate mongering" and "vile" postings, particularly one cartoon of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Bush. Dodd took up the defense of the Kos site in a segment aired on O'Reilly's television show Thursday.