By John Whitesides
PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island (Reuters) - After a gut punch in Wisconsin and frequent bouts of disappointment with President Barack Obama, liberal activists could be excused for a lack of enthusiasm about November's U.S. election.
But many of those attending Netroots Nation, a three-day gathering of grassroots progressives in Rhode Island, said the stark choices in the looming battle for control of the White House and Congress were all the motivation they need.
While liberals have frequently criticized Democrat Obama for being too quick to compromise and too slow to fight for their principles, those at the conference said it was time to focus on the stakes in his presidential race against Republican rival Mitt Romney.
"Most progressives are pretty savvy and focused on the future, and Mitt Romney is going to be very motivating for us," said Arshad Hasan, executive director of Democracy for America, the group founded by former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, whose failed 2004 presidential bid galvanized the left.
"On everything from jobs and the economy to the future of the Supreme Court, he would be a very conservative president, and that is going to fire people up," Hasan said.
Nearly four years after celebrating Obama's historic White House win, liberals have suffered a series of political setbacks beginning with heavy losses in the 2010 elections and topped by this week's failed recall of Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
Walker, who caused an uproar on the left with his anti-union policies, survived the recall election with help from a dramatic surge of spending by outside conservative groups. Wealthy activists like the brothers David and Charles Koch have poured millions into conservative Republican causes, and Democrats have not come close to matching it.
Finding ways to fight back against that flood of conservative cash was a frequent discussion topic for the 3,000 bloggers, activists and grassroots leaders attending the conference, the biggest annual gathering of U.S. progressives.
Panel discussions at the conference, which runs Thursday through Saturday, ranged from topics like harnessing the power of social media to organizing grassroots campaigns to take on big banking, natural-gas drilling and Republican efforts to purge voter rolls.
'WE HAVE TO RE-THINK STRATEGIES'
"Progressives have to re-think our strategies, we have to organize voters at a community level and get smarter about how we focus on issues," said Matt Stevens of Atlanta, who writes the Prune Juice Media blog.
An exhibit hall featured booths and displays for an array of liberal causes, from traditional pillars like Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club to grassroots organizers like MoveOn.org.
The president has been criticized by liberals for what they say are watered-down healthcare and financial regulatory reforms, a go-easy approach to Wall Street and a failure to fulfill campaign promises like closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But some of those at the conference said Obama had not gotten enough credit for his accomplishments, including his recent support of gay marriage and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
"Progressives need to understand that while part of our role is to push the envelope and make sure that politicians hear our voice, we also have to be very practical," said Jon "Bowzer" Bauman, a political activist and former singer for the doo wop throwback band Sha-Na-Na.
"The president has fulfilled more of his campaign promises than any recent president I can think of," he said.
Brian Rothenberg, executive director of Progress Ohio, said he was puzzled by the frequent criticism of Obama from the left.
"I am who I am, I lead a progressive organization, and I don't expect any politician to be with me 100 percent of the time," Rothenberg said.
For Monica Ross-Williams, who runs a political blog and radio show in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the doubts on the left about Obama still add up to less energy in November.
"I worked for Obama in 2008. I don't think I'll work for him this time. I'll probably vote for him, but it's not with a lot of enthusiasm," she said.
Chris Weigant, a political blogger from Santa Cruz, California, said he worried that disillusionment among young and first-time voters who helped propel Obama to victory in 2008 would keep them away from the polls this year.
"There are people who are disappointed about this and that, but in the end they are going to vote for Obama," he said. "But the younger you are, the more you feel it when you get disillusioned for the first time."
(The story corrects spelling of Weigant in penultimate graf.)
(Editing by Andy Sullivan and Doina Chiacu)