Being Moody: Where Bernie Sanders is king

Phoenix (CNN)Thousands of liberal Democrats are descending on this desert city this weekend. But not Hillary Clinton.

Clinton's absence from the Netroots Nation conference, an annual gathering of nearly 3,000 progressive activists, is another sign of the uphill battle she faces in connecting with the most liberal wing of her party. And the rise of Bernie Sanders, her liberal challenger, is on full display.
"I think she's written us off," Dan O'Neil, a Sanders supporter who leads Progressive Democrats of America, told CNN. "She's written the left--the far left--off."
Indeed, Sanders is king here and passionate Clinton defenders are hard to find.
    Many activists who spoke to CNN expressed skepticism about whether Clinton is really one of them, despite her lurch to the left on issues like same-sex marriage and immigration. Their reluctance to express full-throated support early in the primary was reinforced this week when Clinton declined invitations to address the gathering.
    "It's a missed opportunity for the Clinton campaign," Netroots Nation Board Member Cheryl Contee told CNN. "Is it possible that Hillary Clinton can experience the same passion, energy and excitement as Obama did when he came here in 2008? I do think it's possible. I think it will probably require a shift in strategy by the campaign and a willingness to engage as directly as possible with the types of people who are here."
    Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley will attend a presidential candidate forum here Saturday.
    During the last contested Democratic primary season, in 2007, Clinton visited the conference for a forum with then-Sen. Barack Obama and other White House contenders. But Clinton's poor performance faced an onslaught of criticism from liberal bloggers and activists who blasted her online when she defended corporate lobbyists on stage. This year, Clinton's campaign blamed her absence on a schedule conflict, an excuse many here find dubious, since the conference date and location was announced last summer.
    In her absence, these activists are devoting energy to Sanders, a lawmaker with one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate, who they embrace as a true believer.
    "There's no doubt about his authenticity," Democracy for America spokesman Neil Stroka told CNN. "After eight years of feeling that we're part of the way, we really know we're going to need a fighter and a champion to get us the next steps."
    But liberal activists read the polls too, and they know Clinton faces strong odds of ultimately winning the nomination. Which is why, in a way, they are pouring on the tough love: They want Clinton to be as liberal as possible on a range of issues, and they concede that propping up a candidate like Sanders will help make that happen.
    When pressed, even the most hardcore Sanders supporter says they'll fall in line and support Clinton against a Republican.
    "Let's assume that she gets the nomination," O'Neil said. "We'll pull together probably to make sure we don't get a right wing Republican as our next president."
    In the meantime, they want Clinton to feel the Bern.