Chicago – The scene at the McCormick Place Convention Center this weekend is in many ways a snapshot of the growing power of the Internet – and blogs especially – as a tool for political organizing and empowering ordinary citizens in the political process. The 1,500 or so attendees at the Yearly Kos conference (which is only in its second year of existence) are, by and large, ordinary people who happen to be intensely involved in politics – liberal politics, in this case. But unlike most gatherings of ordinary people, this one has attracted political leaders and candidates from all over the country to pay their respects, if not outright homage. All of the Democratic presidential candidates, including front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are scheduled to arrive tomorrow as part of the procession. Today, it was lower-profile candidates – people running for the House or Senate, or in some cases for their state governor's office – milling about, meeting people, shaking hands, networking, and trying to tap into the so-called "netroots" and its fund-raising and organizing power. A number of Democratic candidates from the Northwest are prominently in attendance. Probably foremost among them is Darcy Burner, the former Microsoft manager who nearly unseated incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert in Washington's 8th District in 2004. Burner is running hard again for the 2008 election. She made an impression on the netroots in that first run and has been greeted around the conference hallways by a steady flow of well-wishers and friends. At a gathering of the candidates in the early evening, she was introduced as "the rock star" of the field. "I'm certainly having fun," Burner told Crosscut. "I've been getting a chance to talk to people about the issues and meet some of the other candidates who are running again, share our experiences on what's working and what's not working. It's been fantastic." Some candidates (including, perhaps, Burner's primary opponent, state Rep. Rodney Tom) have stayed away from the gathering because of a perception that it's a convocation of far-left extremists. Certainly, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly – who spent much of the past two weeks denouncing Daily Kos, the conference's founding Web site, as a "hate" site, and urging Democrats to stay away – has been a leader among conservatives seeking to create that image. But none of the candidates have seen that as the case at all. Not even George Fearing, the Tri-Cities, Wash., lawyer running as a Democrat in Washington's 4th District, hoping to knock off incumbent Republican Doc Hastings. Fearing is running in a conservative district as a centrist, and he sees a lot of like-minded people walking the hallways here. "I think these people are in the center of the political spectrum," said Fearing. "I haven't seen any communists or socialists or even environmental extremists. The people I've met who are involved in blogging are extremely supportive of capitalism – they're more libertarian and involved in free speech, and in that way they're definitely more centrist. "This has been terrific, it has been inspiring. Every American should come to this once in their lives." The same is true of Larry Grant, the former Micron executive running again in Idaho's 1st District against incumbent Bill Sali, who narrowly beat Grant in 2004. Grant told Crosscut that the kind of people he was meeting were a lot like Idaho Democrats – "and we have about five different kinds of those." Mostly, he acknowledges the power of the blogosphere to move political campaigns. "The netroots has been very good to me," he says. "We raised about $80,000 off the Internet in our last campaign in Idaho, and that was very important to us. We like to go where we're supported. That's why I'm here. "And besides," he adds with a smile, "we know that everyone in their hearts wants to live in Idaho." Says Burner: "This is a people-powered politics sort of thing. I've been mixing it up with people who believe that normal Americans should be involved in our democracy, and I'm proud to be mixing it up with people who believe that every American should play a participatory role in this democracy." Likewise, Oregon attorney Steve Novick, a novice candidate who's seeking to run for the Senate against incumbent Republican Gordon Smith, has found that the image of a conference hall full of loose cannons is grossly misplaced. "I think that this is a bunch of people who care deeply about the country," he told Crosscut. "There's a lot of substantive policy discussion going on." Novick's found that gatherings like Yearly Kos are a great way to gain traction. This week Oregon state House Speaker Jeff Merkley announced he'll seek the nomination, too, and Merkley was seen by some as the instant frontrunner given his stature, even though polling indicates a tight race. Merkley isn't here, and Novick has had ample opportunities to work on his campaign appeal. "Does Gordon Smith vote the wrong way because he's an evil man?" he said. "No he's not. He's a nice man. He reminds me of the Wizard of Oz. You know, at the end of the movie, when he's exposed as a fraud, Dorothy says, 'You're a very bad man.' And the wizard says, 'No dear, I'm a good man, I'm just a very bad wizard.' Gordon Smith is a very nice man, but he is a very bad senator." Novick is easily the most diminutive of the candidates here – he is well under five feet tall – and simultaneously one of the most impressive; his oft-mentioned powerful intellect comes across readily in his everyday conversations. He also makes good use of his main handicap, a missing left hand that has a hook in its place. He holds it up before the crowd and proclaims, "Oregon needs a good left hook!" The crowd laughs and cheers at the line, which jolts many of their expectations. Kind of like the YKos conference itself.