Bloggers fan flames during campaign lull

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Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

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With the general election a long way off and much of the general public still tuning out the presidential race, you’d think the online activist corps that have injected unprecedented amounts of cash to fuel this campaign season might want to take a few weeks off.

You’d be wrong.

As I write this, thousands of political webheads are gathering in searing-hot Austin, Texas, with the intent to amplify their collective voices and influence their preferred candidates. Like moths to a flame, many of these candidates are here as well, trying to press the flesh but also to get a handle on what makes bloggers and their readers tick. Lots of political nonprofit types are there as well, each eager to start their own fires.

There’s lots to talk about as both left and right assemble in opposite sides of town, liberals in Austin’s left-leaning urban core and conservatives in the more centrist north. As contemptuous of each other as they are, however, both sides have more in common than they may wish to admit.

Kicking off their third annual Web political gathering, the collection of Democrats at Netroots Nation is in a celebratory mood. The nefarious President Bush continues to garner low approval ratings, the online cash continues to flow and the much-reviled (at least by this crowd) Hillary Clinton is safely banished to her Senate seat.

Things could be better for the netroots, however. In fact, to listen to many, the hope for “change” became as dry as West Texas with Barack Obama’s vote to give legal immunity to telecom companies for cooperating with domestic surveillance requests.

“I am heartbroken,” as Huffington Post blog commenter “KaAp” put it. “He was my last hope for the U.S. and he seems to be just one of those machine dreams. … I cannot support Obama given his goose-step to the right.”

Somewhat less tinged by emotion than their readership, the liberal bloggers aren’t as enraged about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) as their readership (don’t say that too loudly in the downtown Hilton though). Still, there is some palpable unease as it’s beginning to dawn on many that while telecom immunity isn’t as vitally important as Keith Olbermann painted it before Mr. Obama’s flip-flop, it is perhaps another indicator that the junior senator from Illinois actually may have been using them.

Mr. Obama has clearly moved beyond the blustering, foppish style of Al Gore and John Kerry, and for that, the lefty blogosphere cheers him. They love his much more aggressive approach to the daily campaign slog - instead of sitting back and letting liberal journalists beat back the GOP, Mr. Obama and his staff eagerly are joining in the fray.

As much as they’d like to avoid them, however, doubts still linger. Barack Obama was not the candidate of the online left when the primaries began. That distinction belonged to John Edwards, and look where he ended up. Mr. Obama doesn’t owe them anything. It was the regular average blogophobic Democrat, not the netroots, who elected Barack Obama.

Is FISA but a sign of things to come? Does the Democratic Party think of the lefty blogosphere as a cash cow that’s good only for repeating talking points? Many liberal bloggers in Austin are afraid of what the answers may be.

Up north at the Renaissance Hotel, the gathering of conservatives and libertarians has a decidedly different atmosphere. If the assembled lefties are just coming down with buyer’s remorse, the attendees at the RightOnline conference across town have been suffering from it for a while.

Plagued by a feckless White House that seems to have lost its interest in communicating an agenda they can support, the right-leaning crowd here is at a bit of a standstill. Ostensibly led by a president they’ve grown weary trying to keep in line and a presidential nominee many have long distrusted trying to lead them in the future, there is a very real lack of certitude at RightOnline.

Things aren’t entirely bad for Team Conservative, however. In fact, the very existence of the conference itself (which in the interest of full disclosure this columnist played a minor role in helping establish) is a sign of progress. While not nearly as big as the cross-town confab of liberals, it’s quite possible RightOnline may ultimately prove more influential than Netroots Nation, if only by virtue of the fact that it is the first such gathering. The lefty nonprofits and their partisan allies already have learned many of the lessons of online politicking and modern information warfare to great effect. What if the institutional right begins doing so?

A difficult question to be sure. I hope you’ll join me as I try to find out the answers to this and many other questions surrounding technology and politics.

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