5 speakers to watch at the Democratic National Convention, Day 1

September 4, 2012

CHARLOTTE -- The Democratic National Convention formally begins tonight with a packed roster of speakers all trying to make a name for themselves (in a good way) in front of the thousands of party activists, elected officials and reporters gathered in the Queen City.


With so many speakers, it's hard to know where to look or listen.  That's where we come in. Below are 5 speeches to watch tonight -- a mix of the obvious (Michelle Obama, duh) and not-so-obvious (we hope).

Away we go!

* Joe Kennedy III (7 pm hour):  Kennedy III, who is running for the open House seat in Massachusetts' 4th district, has big shoes to fill at this convention. Remember that it was his great-uncle -- the late Senator Ted Kennedy -- who delivered the "dream shall never die" speech, perhaps the most famous address in the history of Democratic conventions.  (Kennedy is the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy.) While the young Kennedy shouldn't be expected to reach those rhetorical heights, his speech will be closely watched by Democrats wondering if he represents the next generation of Kennedys who will rise to positions of political power. (January 2011 marked the first time in 60 years(!) that no Kennedy held federal office.) That his speech will be preceded by a video honoring the Kennedy family suggests he is fully embracing that role.

* Rahm Emanuel (9 pm hour): The mayor of Chicago will, almost certainly, be the designated red meat thrower of the evening. No one relishes political combat like Emanuel and in his position as mayor of Chicago he faces little political risk in bashing Republicans relentlessly.  Those two factors virtually ensure that Emanuel will get the crowd revved up in advance of the major speakers of the night.  The only lingering question: Will he swear? (We are kidding -- sort of.)

* Martin O'Malley (10 pm hour): The governor of Maryland has been everywhere in Charlotte.  And there's a reason for that: He is starting to make the sort of moves you make if you want to run for president. (O'Malley is speaking at the Iowa delegation's convention breakfast on Wednesday.) While O'Malley march (ahem) to the 2016 race took a detour over the weekend -- when he flubbed his answer on whether Americans are better off than they were four years ago -- he remains at or near the front of the next presidential field. A strong speech tonight will cement O'Malley's place in that top tier. A poor one will add to the O'Malley off-message storyline from the weekend.

* Julian Castro (10 pm hour): Opportunities like keynoting your party's national convention don't come along all that often -- make that almost never -- and so it's hard to overestimate what this speech means for the future career of the San Antonio Mayor.  A strong speech and he is at the front (or damn close) of the line for a run for governor or Senate whenever an opportunity presents itself.  Castro's speech is also important for the Democratic party.  If Democrats are able to lock up Hispanics as a voting bloc in the same way they have done with African Americans, it will be very tough for Republicans to remain a majority party.  Putting Castro in such a prominent speaking role is an attempt by the party to do just that.

* Michelle Obama (10 pm hour): No speaker -- up to and including the President -- will get a rock star reception to match what will greet the first lady tonight.  Michelle Obama's approval ratings is very high among the American electorate and stratospherically so among Democrats. She is a trusted messenger not only by Democrats but by many in the undecided middle of the electorate. (In an April Washington Post-ABC News poll, 67 percent of independents said they had a favorable view of the First Lady.)  Michelle Obama can vouch for her husband as no one else who will speak at the convention can. She's likely to make the case that he's the same person they elected in 2008 and, despite a series of tough challenges, he remains committed to them. That message -- due to Michelle Obama's popularity and her status as a non-politician -- could have real resonance for voters wondering if they got sold a bill of goods in 2008.

Watch the speeches LIVE on The Convention Grid

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake | September 4, 2012