Hopeful Democrats Audition For Bloggers

Seven of the eight leading Democratic Presidential candidates attend the Yearly Kos Convention's Presidential Leadership Forum in Chicago, Saturday, Aug. 4, 2007. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton refused Saturday to forsake campaign donations from lobbyists, turning aside challenges from her two main rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination with a rare defense of the special interest industry.

"A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans, they actually do," Clinton said, drawing boos and hisses from liberal bloggers at the second Yearly Kos convention.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois put Clinton on the spot during a forum that featured seven of the eight major Democratic presidential candidates fielding questions from a crowd of 1,500 bloggers, most of them liberal. The gathering marked another advancement for the rising new wing of the Democratic Party, the so-called netroots.

The candidates were put on the spot from the start.

The first question went to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was asked why he once cited Justice Byron White, a conservative, as a model Supreme Court justice. "I screwed up on that," he replied.

Clinton was asked what three lessons she learned from her failed health care reform effort during the presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton. "It is not enough to have a plan. You've got to have a political strategy," the New York senator said.

"In 90 seconds, I don't have the time to tell you all the mistakes I made."

Obama said he would allow the U.S. to continue running a budget deficit to meet health care and other needs. "We've got to make some investments."

Plunging headlong into the Internet era, all seven candidates fought for the support of the powerful and polarizing liberal blogosphere by promising universal health care, aggressive government spending and dramatic change from the Bush era.

Edwards received the loudest applause when he suggested his rivals were tinkering around the edges — "I just heard some discussion about negotiation, compromise" — rather than overhauling government. He said the nation needs "big change, not small change."

Edwards, the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee, called on the field to join him in refusing donations from lobbyists. He suggested that refusing to do so would make Democrats no better than Republicans.

"We don't want to trade their insiders for ours," he said.

Clinton, who accepts such donations, did not respond to Edwards until much later in the forum when the question was put to her. Even then, she stalled by stating the obvious.

"I think it's a position that John certainly has taken," she said, drawing laughter from the crowd. It was not clear whether the audience was laughing with her or at her.

Nonetheless, the bloggers booed and hissed when Clinton insisted a moment later that nobody would believe that she could be influenced by lobbyists. So would she continue to accept those donations?

"Yes, I will," she said, arguing that plenty of lobbyists represent good causes. "They represent nurses, they represent social workers, they represent, yes, they represent corporations that employ a lot of people."

Obama rejected that argument, saying lobbyists aren't at work for the public good. "They have an agenda," he insisted.

Edwards asked crowd members how many of them were represented by lobbyists. A few hands went up, and his point was made.

Again and again, Edwards took swipes at Clinton — some veiled, others blunt — knowing the politically active crowd would get his point whether he mentioned her by name or not. On terrorism, he said: "I don't believe we're safer. I don't agree with Sen. Clinton on that." In a previous debate, Clinton had said the country had been made safer.

Clinton explained that while post-9/11 reforms have improved the nation's safety, the country is not as safe under President Bush as it should be. "I listened carefully to John. I think we have a vigorous agreement," she said, coldly.

The Kos convention is a sign of the times.

Gone are the days when candidates and political parties could talk to passive voters through mass media, largely controlling what messages were distributed, how the messages went out and who heard them. The Internet has help create millions of media outlets and given anyone the power to express an opinion or disseminate information in a global forum, and connect with others who have similar interests.

One way of doing this is through online journals, or blogs, such as those celebrated Saturday. Other people are getting involved politically through social networking sites such as MySpace.com and via video-sharing sites such as YouTube.com.

Some political bloggers have huge audiences of people who trust their opinions. One such new media power broker is the convention's spiritual leader, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of Daily Kos, who said Clinton is viewed skeptically by the netroots community.

One thing most bloggers have in common — regardless of their political leanings — is an intense frustration with the political establishment, particularly in Washington. And so it was a convention dripping in irony when liberal bloggers welcomed the living symbols of the Democratic status quo — seven presidential candidates.

An audience member asked the candidates whether they would hire an official White House blogger. Edwards said yes, "and her name will be Elizabeth Edwards," his wife.

Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel said the next president shouldn't hire somebody to blog. "Do it yourself."