CHICAGO – Maybe it was the energy in the room, or the setting, or the format, or maybe even the Northwest influence – but whatever it was, the debate that occurred among the seven Democratic presidential candidates Saturday, Aug. 4, at the Yearly Kos convention was easily the most engaged and lively forum for the Democrats yet this election season. The Northwest influence came in the form of Joan McCarter, aka "mcjoan," one of the chief editors of the conference's sponsoring blog, Daily Kos. McCarter, who holds degrees from University of Washington's Jackson School of International Studies, was one of the forum's two moderators (the other being Matt Bai of The New York Times). Her questions were usually pointed – she asked former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska about his home state's wave of corruption investigations involving politicians: "Is every politician in Alaska corrupt, or is it just Republicans?" – and always tuned in to the issues foremost on the minds her fellow bloggers: the Iraq war, campaign reform, media ownership, health care, and what they see as the Bush administration's assault on the Constitution. The answers and resulting exchanges among the candidates were lively, and the audience of about 2,000 people regularly joined in. Unlike the other debates, audience members not only engaged in noisy applause – and some occasional hissing and booing – but were also invited to offer questions to the candidates, which were then read to the candidates for their response. The energy in the room was high, and that seemed to inspire the candidates, who engaged each other directly and pointedly. Some issued various challenges, all aimed at promoting themselves as the best candidates. John Edwards, the 2004 vice-presidential candidate, pledged not to take any money from "Washington lobbyists" and urged his fellow candidates to do likewise. The point was directed at Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, who refused to join in the pledge, noting that among those "Washington lobbyists" are people representing teachers, health-care workers, and union members. Likewise, Clinton's fellow front-runner, Barack Obama, impressed the audience with his thoughtful replies to questions about Iraq, the "war on terror" and his explanations of his views of governance – all intended to form a contrast with Clinton. The candidate who probably helped himself the most at the debate was Christopher Dodd, the Connecticut senator who entered the hall already something of a hero for having taken on Yearly Kos critic Bill O'Reilly earlier this week on Fox News. Dodd displayed both real knowledge and a thoughtful approach to the issues, but most of all his passion about those issues came across to the audience, who responded enthusiastically at times. The debate's fringe candidates, Gravel and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, seemed to help themselves rather little in comparison. Their contributions largely consisted of trying to make their fellow Democrats look bad, and went over poorly with an audience not in a mood to bash liberals. Clinton has the most tenuous relationship with the netroots of any of the candidates; anti-Hillary shirts and buttons have abounded at the conference, largely because of her middle-ground approach to the Iraq war. Yet she seemed to help herself at this appearance; along with the occasional boos and hisses, she also earned warm applause with her answers to questions about health-care reform and peeling back the Bush administration's executive-branch power acquisitions. Each of the candidates also participated in "breakout" sessions in which they appeared before smaller audiences and took questions from the voters, and Clinton also helped herself tremendously in hers, which was a significant turnaround; on Thursday night, she had been booed loudly when it was announced she wouldn't be taking part in the session, and her campaign team quickly reversed course. She gained points for candidness by pledging to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for gays in the military installed by her husband during his presidency, and her pledge to close the terrorist holding camp at Guantanamo Bay and to restore the right of habeas corpus for military-commission prisoners earned raucous applause. But it was probably her opening remarks (later repeated at the larger debate) that scored the most, because she openly thanked the bloggers in attendance, even those who have savaged her online. "I want to thank you," she said. "I really appreciate not just the fighting words and the standing up and the being counted, but the substance of what you do. I wish you had been around 10 years ago when I was trying to reform health care." The audience laughed and nodded. They know that they now have the real ability to affect the national discourse. And the appearance of the candidates – who all skipped out on the Democratic Leadership Council gathering last week so they could be at Yearly Kos – was itself stark evidence of that reality.