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Obama's Grassroots Sprout at Starbucks

Reporter's Notebook: NEW YORK -- Presidential campaign War Rooms are wired in 2008. Obama, Clinton, Romney, McCain and the like are using the medium in every way they can. Mostly to raise money.

But they're also bringing supporters together on a grassroots level. What's such a meeting like? I found out on a recent Thursday here.

I first met Eric Friedman, a Web developer for a company called Content Squad, who was sitting at a Starbucks under a printout bearing presidential candidate Barack Obama's red, white and blue "O." He was joined by fellow Obama supporters Robert Chelimsky, Roz Dann and Jason Newman. He met them through my.barackobama.com, the campaign's social network.

This meeting was the Political Web 2.0 in action. This was netroots. These are the types of people who post videos of candidates saying "macaca" to YouTube, bringing promising political careers to their ends.

So what were the 21st century democrats discussing?

"We're trying to figure out what's next," Chelimsky told me after I'd walked up to their huddled gathering by the window and introduced myself as a reporter. From what I could tell, figuring out what's next meant periods of awkward silence and smiling at each other.

I tried a few questions. Why, for instance, did Friedman convene the gathering? He said he was checking out my.barackobama.com to see how it implemented some of the social tools his clients were asking for on their own sites.

It was only on a lark really, he said, that he set up the meeting. It was so easy to set up a meeting during his usual coffee hour, why not do it, he said.

OK, so why Obama?

For Friedman, it was the campaign's repurposing of Apple's "1984" ad posted to YouTube, where a speechifying Hillary Clinton takes Big Brother's place.

Jason Newman, a director in marketing and sales for ESPN, said he came to Obama after his keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Robert Chemilsky, a manager at the Thruapan Kitchen on Seventh Avenue, said that same speech got him interested in Obama, but it was the candidate's first book, Dreams from My Father that truly earned his devotion. Chemilsky said he appreciates how Obama could write about America's race problem without making him feel guilty for being white.

Concurring nods all around.

"Oh and he's so smart, too," Dann said.

The conversation stalled. They told me that before I'd gotten there a reporter for Irish radio had stopped by and his questions had helped lead the discussion just as mine were now.

I took my cue. Had they all donated to the campaign? They had. That puts them with the 100,000 others who donated to the campaign, according to the Obama camp. The Wall Street Journal reported that 27 percent of Obama's contributions are from online donors like Freidman and company.

Obama's closest rival, Hillary Clinton, pulled in 23 percent of her $26 million from the Web.

I asked the group if they'd looked at any of the other candidates' sites. No, they each said in turn, not really. They'd heard about them, of course. Wasn't John McCain trying out a social network too, they asked.

He is. I told them about McCainSpace and some of the other Political Web 2.0 sites I've been covering on my Wired War Room beat. There was Hillary's weekly podcast and John Edwards' headquarters in Second Life. I talked about how Mitt Romney's team is watching the Web so closely.

"Oh, what's his site called?" Friedman jumped in, "Mormon.com? Wifeswap.org?"

Chelimsky, guilt-free, and the others laughed quietly at Friedman's characterization of Romney's religion. But soon the meeting broke up and everybody had to get to work.

Did they think they'd meet up again? "Maybe," Friedman said. "We'll see."

Nicholas Carlson is senior associate editor of internetnews.com.