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Licking Their Wounds, Progressives Regroup

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: And I'm Scott Horsley in Providence. Netroots Nation is part pep rally, part technology seminar, and - this year at least - part postmortem. Netroots chairman Adam Bonin kicked off the gathering just two days after the Wisconsin vote, which was viewed very differently in this crowd than it was by the audience at CPAC.

ADAM BONIN: Wisconsin was bad. This was a gut-punch to our movement. But you know, as Bruce Springsteen says in the title track of the new album "Wrecking Ball," hard times come and then hard times go. And they keep coming and we don't go away. We keep fighting no matter what the other side brings at us. This movement keeps going forward.


HORSLEY: Progressive activists are bracing for another tough fight in November. Zack Pollett works with a group called the Fair Share Alliance in Arkansas. He says the mood is more one of determination than dismay.

ZACK POLLETT: I think there's a sense of realism. The country is divided and there will be so much corporate money spent, it will give a real uneven playing field.

HORSLEY: This week, campaign finance reports showed Mitt Romney and the Republicans raised more than $76 million last month, almost 17 million more than President Obama and the Democrats. In the face of these setbacks, Netroots Nation is a chance to rally the progressive troops. Jeana Brown is a former Obama organizer from Screven, Georgia.

JEANA BROWN: All of these folks have the compassion and also being progressive and out of the box thinkers about human beings. So, for someone like me to come to something like this, it's almost a love fest. I can let my hair down and talk about anything I want to.

HORSLEY: The Providence Convention Center serves as the big tent for this political revival, where a group working to strengthen gun laws sets up shop next to a group working to relax drug laws. There are anti-nuclear activists, pro-wind activists, and Credo Mobile, which bills itself as America's only progressive phone company. A Georgia colleague of Brown's was surprised by the wide variety.

BROWN: So, as we're walking around and he's reading, he said, oh, I didn't know these people were going to be here. Oh, these people? Oh, Jeana Brown, these people are just as crazy as us. We're going to be able to work with these people.

HORSLEY: Face-to-face networking is part of the agenda here, but Netroots is also about using the tools of technology to continue the conversation back home. Planned Parenthood's president, Cecile Richards, stressed the important role social media played this year when the Susan G. Komen foundation tried to cut funding to her group.

CECILE RICHARDS: And in four days, more than 1.3 million tweets were sent, right? And my very favorite one was: Will Planned Parenthood please give Twitter back?

HORSLEY: Peace activist Marta Turnbell of Boulder, Colorado wants to learn more about harnessing that kind of energy.

MARTA TURNBELL: I am looking for some skills and knowledge around social media and electronic media, and also to be inspired.

HORSLEY: Four years ago, Turnbell was inspired by President Obama, but she told fellow activists she's less enthusiastic about the president this year. She's disappointed by what she calls missed opportunities. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman told progressives if they want to avoid that kind of disappointment, they need to keep the heat on politicians. After all, he says, that's what activists on the other side do.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: Progressives have a tendency to elect someone and then you go home. The conservatives never go home. They're there kicking their own guys in the back, saying, come on, build the movement, do more of what we want. Let's learn from our mistakes. Keep pushing, keep fighting. Are you in?


HORSLEY: A Netroots leader urged the activists to think about the kind of policies they want to push after November. He acknowledged that's a little presumptuous. There's still an election to win first. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Providence, Rhode Island. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.