AUSTIN, TX – Are liberal bloggers upset at Barack Obama for supporting the last FISA bill? Of course, but that’s not the focus on the first day of Netroots Nation in Austin. It was the first audience question raised at a 9:00 a.m. panel, but we all know this is part of a broader struggle. In contrast to last year’s glitz in Chicago, the netroots at this Convention are working on the nuts and bolts of winning the White House in November – and electing more and better Democrat at all levels of government – which will alter the definition of what’s politically possible. There aren’t as many prominent speakers, and the panels are fewer in number. Instead, we have presentations by the DNC’s “neighbor-to-neighbor” voter program – along with caucus meetings and self-organized workshops. Howard Dean has shown up, but he’s not really a celebrity – he’s like a member of the family.

Hosting the Convention in Texas makes a larger point about changing the political demographics for future elections, and locals I spoke with appreciate it. Obama probably won’t win the Lone State State in November, but his coattails can help elect underdog candidates like Rick Noriega to the U.S. Senate – and win several legislative seats. “If Obama can help us win enough seats in Texas,” said Howard Dean, “we will undo what damage Tom DeLay did in the last re-districting effort.” Dean arrived with a rock-star welcome at a noon-time rally, as he kicked off a national voter registration drive.

“Barack Obama wants to be President of every single state,” said Dean, “not just the ones who agree with us. We’re going to places that haven’t always voted for us,” as he cited (with comedic effect of his infamous Iowa scream) all the states they are targeting. The DNC is even reaching out to evangelical voters under 35, he said. “The three issues they care about the most are poverty, climate change and Darfur. Last I checked, those sound like the Democratic Party. This is about taking long term opportunities for our country.”

As Chairman of the DNC, Dean has developed a 50-State Strategy that’s consistent with Obama’s message – and it’s consistent with the netroots. A lot of hype is given at this Convention to candidates like Noriega, but even at the state-level caucuses we’re seeing the Party taking a deeper interest in “red” territories. At the California subgroup, we had 4 candidates for Congress (including the popular Charlie Brown) – all of whom are running as Democrats in districts where the party had long ceded to Republicans.

While the Republican Party has had a voter file for 10 years that has successfully helped them win elections, under Dean the Democrats finally have one of their own – through a program called VoteBuilder. “I want to thank all the 25-year-olds who slept under their desk at the DNC office to create this voter file,” said Dean.

At 9:00 a.m. yesterday, Parag Mehta of the DNC gave a presentation called “The Plan: Ground Game for 2008” – where he described the Party’s strategy for winning in November and beyond. “We have to question every assumption,” he said. “Just because something had always been done one way doesn’t make it the right way. We are firmly committed to only giving our volunteers tasks that are effective and will help us win elections.”



And part of that is the “Neighbor-to-Neighbor” strategy. No more dumping volunteers in random precincts full of strangers, or waving signs at street corners just to get them out of the campaign office. With the party’s new voter file, organizers can help get out the vote in their own precincts and talk to their own neighbors. That’s a far more effective and qualitative method of electing Democrats.

Part of that inspiration, incidentally, is from the evangelical church model. As the pastor of a megachurch once said, “don’t think of it as a church with 10,000 members. Think of it as 500 people who have 20 friends.” With the Voter File and “Neighbor-to-Neighbor,” the Democratic Party can use these networks to more effectively get out its message.

But when Meta opened up his questions to members of the audience, he was predictably asked what Democratic Party volunteers can tell their neighbors about Obama’s recent vote on FISA. “It was a bad bill,” he conceded, “but there were things in the bill that were worth fighting for. Obama’s committed to repairing it after he’s elected – we have to make sure that this happens.”

Meta spoke about the DNC’s campaign against John McCain – “we’re never going to say that he’s old – but he is old-fashioned. While it’s Obama’s job to stress the positive parts of his campaign message, it’s our job at the DNC to define McCain. And we need to get the word out that McCain is just another third term for the Bush Administration.”

Finally, he stressed unity. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had a long protracted battle, but it’s time for supporters of each to come together – and to add flavor to his message, included a slide with the caption: “you can love them both.”

Of course, most of the audience had been staunch Obama supporters. “Hug a Hillary supporter today,” he said. “Because we are now all one party.”