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The center cannot hold

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Much has been made of Howard Dean's groundbreaking use of the Internet as a grassroots organizing tool, and one of its architects paid a visit to Durham last week.

Zephyr Teachout is a 32-year-old Vermont native who graduated from Duke Law School in 1999 and subsequently co-founded the Fair Trial Initiative, an organization that provides pro bono legal council to death row inmates. She is now best known as the Dean campaign's director of Internet organizing, where she is the den mother of thousands of online supporters. In October, she decided to go and meet them, and embarked on a seven-and-a-half week nationwide tour of 30 states and 55 cities. Her Triangle stop on Dec. 11 took her to WUNC's studios for an appearance on "The State of Things," a small house gathering in Durham, and a larger rally and strategy session at El Centro Hispano.

The questions Teachout fields from journalists and curious members of the public reveal a lot about what people are just beginning to understand about how the Internet works. Some assume online organizing replaces or overtakes face-to-face meetings, when in fact, if used the way the Dean people expertly use it, it does very much opposite: Sites like Meetup.com, Friendster and the Dean campaign's own Get Local software have provided a way to organize face-to-face meetings not only in the Triangle, but in rural counties, among fiscal conservatives, college students, housewives and dozens of other politically frustrated sub-groups who otherwise wouldn't likely know of one another's existence.

As she sat Thursday evening with about 25 people in the Walltown living room of Dean supporter Peter Armenia, Teachout explained the cardinal rule of online organizing strategy. It's a statement that encapsulates the sea change that the Dean campaign says it's trying to create in American civic life: "Get people in a room together as fast as you can." Then, let them do whatever they want to do.

Dean's organizers don't try to control their supporters' efforts, just as they don't run their own moves or statements past the Democratic Party elders for approval. The campaign is strong because it learns from its supporters, and offers them tools to use as they please. "The campaign is run on an Open Source philosophy," she said as technology workers sitting in the room bristled with excitement--somebody gets it.

"Everybody's fighting over this thing they call the center," said Teachout, a slim, effervescent woman with a thin face and a bright, toothy smile, as she drew intersecting circles on a piece of paper. Smart Republicans learned during the Reagan campaign that the real way to win is to stand firm, while the other guys scramble to appear centrist in comparison. "One of the reasons Democrats lose is that they move all over the place, and it makes Democratic voters cynical," she said.

Another local supporter, Linda Watson, spoke of encouraging response to this idea from local Dems. "We're taking back the party," she said with a smile. "It's great." Dean's people now are working on training sessions for Democrats running for state and local races.

A young woman with wire-rim glasses and a black hoodie asked Teachout how to extend the idea of "concentric circles" of organizing into rural counties, where there may only be three or four people within 50 miles of each other signed up for a Meetup. The Chatham County Dean organizer talked about the challenges and rewards of getting people out to attend Wednesday night Meetups. People from Alamance County, Bynum, Winston-Salem and Cary had similar input. It helps for organizers to drive out to wherever those Meetups are held, Teachout said, to make sure those three or four people don't feel alone.

After a dinner at George's Garage, the Dean posse moved to El Centro Hispano in downtown Durham, where the approximately 65 people sat in the brightly decorated main hall. Playwright and Duke professor Ariel Dorfman was there, sitting quietly on the couch, as his son, Rodrigo Dorfman wandered around the room in his signature leather pants, filming the event on digital video for www.nc4dean.org.

Teachout gave the crowd some rousing stories from the road, tales of eccentric Dean supporters who had rallied in unlikely places like Lubbock, Texas.

"Build to win in this state, because it is completely winnable," she said, her loose energetic movements filling the space in front of Rigoberto Menchu's portrait. Small groups formed, where people shared personal stories and brainstormed strategies for action. (See Act Now, p. 17)

"This state is completely emblematic," Teachout said as the event wound up, "because we haven't spent a dime here. The governor hasn't been able to come for rallies. So everything that's happening here is happening from the grassroots."

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