Plunging headlong into the Internet era, Democratic presidential candidates on Saturday fought for the support of powerful and polarizing liberal bloggers by promising universal health care, aggressive government spending and dramatic change from the Bush era.
"Who will be about change? Who is the candidate for change? And how do we bring about change?" asked former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, suggesting his rivals are creatures of the status quo.
Seven of the eight leading candidates attended the second Yearly Kos convention, participating in a candidate forum and conducting individual sessions designed to be more freewheeling.
The convention drew 1,500 bloggers, most of them liberal, who represent the latest advancement in communicating and community.
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.
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 said. "I love John F. Kennedy and figured if Kennedy had supported him ...," Richardson said.
Sen. Hillary Rodham 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, adding: "In 90 seconds, I don't have the time to tell you all the mistakes I made."
Another leading candidate, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, 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."
Edwards received the largest 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, along with Obama, to forsake donations from lobbyists. That is a pledge he said Republicans should take, too.
"We don't want to trade their insiders for ours," he said.
Clinton, who accepts such donations, did not respond.
Some political bloggers have huge audiences of people who trust their opinions. One such new media powerbroker is the convention's spiritual leader, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of Daily Kos, among the first and most widely read political blogs.
"This really is democracy in action," he said of the convention, which connected online activists though a traditional off-line gathering. "This is regular Americans using technology to engage in politics."
While there is little hard data to support the theory, Zuniga and other observers contend that Clinton is viewed skeptically by the netroots community. The knock against her is that she is too moderate or too calculating, or both, particularly when it comes to the Iraq war. She has evolved from a hawkish Democrat to a candidate determined to improve her standing in the anti-war community.
Zuniga, who said he is in no hurry to endorse a candidate, said Clinton has improved her standing with the Kos community. Still, he said, Clinton's best hope may be to mitigate the damage.
"We may decide she's not our first choice, but she's not a bad choice," he said.
The Clinton campaign won no fans in the convention when word leaked that she did not plan to attend the individual breakout session following the forum. She eventually decided to participate.
Though she fielded just four questions, Clinton was received warmly. She drew laugher and applause by blaming a microphone malfunction on the "vast right-wing conspiracy" and lightheartedly acknowledged her own critics among liberal bloggers. "I appreciate what you're doing. Not everything," she said to laughter. "Enough."
The hottest item at the convention were wrist bands admitting people to Obama's breakout session. Clinton's wristbands disappeared much slower, organizers said.
On Thursday and Friday, representatives for each candidate manned tables at the convention center.
Obama had two eager aides handing out pins and shirts. Edwards surrounded his table with funky inflatable furniture, drawing weary bloggers looking for a place to sit down. Clinton's table was often not staffed, though an aide scratched out a note telling activists how to find her campaign on the Internet.