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Liberals, conservatives come together in Pittsburgh conferences

| Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009

One group gathers Downtown today to figure out how to turn years of hard-fought political victories into sweeping changes in health care, energy, environmental and foreign policy.

Another gets together Friday across the Monongahela River to figure out how to stop them.

Netroots Nation, the nation's largest gathering of liberal, online activists, starts at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center with an address tonight by former President Bill Clinton. RightOnline, the two-day national convention for activists affiliated with the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, begins the day after at the Sheraton Station Square.

About 2,000 bloggers, activists and elected officials are expected to attend the four-day Netroots Nation conference. RightOnline expects about 600.

In four years, Netroots Nation has established itself as a premier event in Democratic Party politics. Eight of the nine Democratic candidates for president in 2008 attended the convention in 2007. The online activists includes pioneers who altered the way elections are won and helped change who controls Washington.

"They have to understand there's something called the permanent campaign," said Howard Dean, the former Democratic National Committee Chairman, about online activists. In 2004, Dean's presidential campaign became the first to rely heavily on online activism. "The natural tendency is, after you worked as hard as they did to elect President Obama, to kind of step aside and go, 'Phew.' "

Conservative bloggers are generally new, said Grover Norquist, keynote speaker at RightOnline and founder of Americans for Tax Reform. "It's only in the last several years they've become politically active," he said.

He credited the success of "tea party" protests to conservative bloggers, saying they serve as "town crier, activist, a network, a central organizing figure, a great barrier reef around which other people are active."

Senate candidates

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, who is seeking to unseat Specter in the 2010 Democratic primary, each will take a half hour of questions at Netroots Nation on Friday. Dean will host a discussion on health care Friday morning, followed by two signings later in the day for his book on health care reform. Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser and longtime friend to Obama, will deliver the keynote address Saturday.

RightOnline will host Republican U.S. Senate candidate and former Rep. Pat Toomey on Friday night. Saturday's program includes speeches by conservative columnist Michelle Malkin, Norquist and Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, better known as Joe the Plumber, who became a prominent part of John McCain's presidential campaign. Former U.S. Rep. John Peterson will lead a rally Friday, before Toomey's speech, against Democratic proposals to limit carbon emissions.

Americans for Prosperity chose the city for its convention to counter Netroots Nation, spokeswoman Mary Ellen Burke said.

Netroots Nation organizers chose Pittsburgh in part because the convention center is the largest to be certified as environmentally friendly. The region's prominent role in the history of organized labor and its success in rehabilitating its economy and waterways also played a role, said Raven Brooks, executive director of Netroots Nation.

Among liberals' top priorities is ensuring that health care legislation includes a public insurance option when it comes up for a vote in the fall. Bloggers now must compete with lobbyists during the crafting of legislation, Brooks said.

"There's a lot of education going on about how the process works, how a bill gets passed," Brooks said. "By the time CNN is reporting on a bill on the floor, it's way too late. You have to get involved much earlier."

Differing panel talks

Among the 90 panel discussions and seminars at Netroots Nation is one entitled "Congress 101 — How the Sausage is Made" and another on how to marshal an online community for real-world events. RightOnline's 21 seminars focus on using the Internet, from "Blogging 101," to "Map to Victory: How the Right Can Win Online."

Democratic officeholders who fail to deliver what activists want risk demoralizing the base that helped elect them, as Republicans did after sweeping to power in the mid-1990s, said Erik Telford, executive director of RightOnline.

"I think there were certainly a number of folks on our side who felt it was difficult to carry water for folks they felt were off course," Telford said. Conservative activists were turned off by ballooning deficits and expansion of government programs but didn't want to damage the party in power because they were part of it, he said.

Liberals had no such constraints, he said.

"Where we've seen the left move ahead was at a time when they were completely locked out of power, and they felt helpless," Telford said. "With nowhere else to turn, they turned online."

Among the first was blogger Markos Moulitsas who, with a few others, helped transform online journals into a political force, Brooks said.

"Before them, blogging was largely a personal thing. This is where it really became something else," Brooks said. "People are writing seriously."

Independent online activism remains an insurgent movement. DailyKos, which gets an average of 860,000 visits a day, was rejected last month when it applied for media credentials to cover the Congress, said Moulitsas, its creator. Credentials are given out by committees made up of journalists from traditional media outlets.

"They don't want bloggers in the room," Moulitsas said.

"It's imposed a kind of accountability that sometimes has been missing from our political debates," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton. "If anything, it's enhanced democracy and also has given an immediacy to it that we've rarely seen in the past."

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