MILWAUKEE — When Democratic party activists from across Wisconsin gathered for their party’s state convention last weekend, they heard speeches from three presidential candidates and surrogates for several others. They also witnessed the arrival of a new political issue that may turn out to be a significant factor in the elections of 2004.

In speech after speech to the delegates and guests at the convention, members of Congress condemned the June 2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission to weaken the few remaining barriers to consolidation of media ownership by the corporate conglomerates that already dominate most of America’s political debate and cultural discourse. And the crowd responded with enthusiastic cheering and applause.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the delegates and guests were not cheering populist criticisms of media consolidation and bias by their party’s presidential candidates. That’s because the candidates failed to focus on media issues. Rather, the crowd was cheering members of Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation, who made media ownership issues central to their speeches at the convention. Therein lies the challenge for the Democrats who would be president: Will they recognize in time that media ownership issues have become critical concerns for the grassroots activists who will be critical players in naming the party’s 2004 nominee?

The candidates cannot claim ignorance. They all criticized the FCC decisions when they were made. Yet,they have yet to recognize the potential this issue has as an old-fashioned populist political tool.

Certainly, the response of Wisconsin Democrats to the speeches that addressed media ownership issues illustrates the extent to which they have become meaningful matters for their state’s party activists. And Wisconsin is not so different from other states. After more than 750,000 Americans contacted the FCC to oppose the rule changes, members of Congress started to wake up to the mood of the country. Now, with more than 100 Democratic members of Congress actively engaged in efforts to reverse the FCC rule changes — and with dozens of Republicans joining them — there is a dawning awareness that concerns about media consolidation, monopoly and bias are no longer limited to inside-the-beltway debates between industry lobbyists and watchdog groups.

As members of Congress prepare to take steps to reverse FCC decisions that would loosen rules governing against media consolidation at the local and national levels, the speeches and responses in Milwaukee illustrated the extent to which the Washington insider debate had moved outside to America.

Warning that “the health of democracy is put at risk” when media monopolies are allowed to extend their reach, U.S. Rep. David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, drew thunderous applause when he declared, “We cannot afford homogenized news from mega-corporations.”

Decrying the warped reporting on events in Washington by “the corporate U.S. news media,” U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, a member of the Judiciary Committee, earned a standing ovation for her declaration that, “Restoring democracy to our news media had got to be a part of our Democratic agenda.”

U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Middleton, a pioneering supporter of Congressional efforts to restore controls against media monopoly, echoed Baldwin’s call for Democrats to make media ownership an issue in 2004.

Portraying the FCC decision on the ownership rules as another example of Washington bowing to pressure from corporate lobbyists, Feingold said that Democrats need to “show the American people that it’s the Democratic party that wants to hear all the diverse voices of America — not just the corporate few.”

Feingold’s comments drew chants of “Go get ’em, Russ” from the crowd of more than 1,000 grassroots party activists.

With Obey, Baldwin and Feingold speaking before them, the Democratic presidential contenders should have recognized the potency of the issue. But they didn’t.

The three Democratic presidential candidates who attended the convention were all outspoken in their criticism of the FCC in early June. Two of them — U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio — are working in Congress with Feingold, Obey, Baldwin, amd key members like U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, and U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and to rescind rule changes that favor media corporations over diversity, competition and local content. But Kerry, Kucinich and the third candidate who appeared at the weekend convention, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, failed to put the same emphasis on media issues that the delegates heard from their Wisconsin representatives.

There’s a lesson in this for all of the 2004 presidential contenders. Grassroots Democrats — along with Greens, Independents and a growing number of Republicans — want issues of media monopoly, consolidation and commercialization on the national agenda. The smart candidates will be the ones who share in that recognition, and who speak to it with the insight and the passion that Feingold, Baldwin and Obey display. In a presidential contest where Democrats are still trying to define themselves, a willingness to raise media ownership issues on a regular basis could be the characteristic that allows the right contender to draw lines of real distinction not just from Bush but from more cautious Democrats.