By Shailagh Murray and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 25, 2008
DENVER, Aug. 24 -- Sen. Barack Obama launched a four-day tour of battleground states Sunday to coincide with Monday's opening of the Democratic convention and its ambitious agenda of selling Obama to a national audience, presenting a forceful case against Republican rival John McCain and unifying a party still recovering from a bruising primary.
The gathering here carries unusually high stakes for a party that believes the White House is within its grasp but understands that victory remains far from certain. Democrats have packed their convention schedule with speakers who will seek to validate Obama and create the image of a leader capable beyond his years and a worthy foe to McCain, a seasoned war hero.
Some of the convention presentations will be designed to spark an emotional response, while others are aimed at specific constituencies, including veterans. Monday's program includes a speech by Michelle Obama, the candidate's wife, and a video tribute by award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), one of Obama's most important early supporters. The film will be introduced by Caroline Kennedy, a close Obama ally and the daughter of former president John F. Kennedy.
But the most important events of the first days of the convention will center on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and her supporters. The senator from New York won 18 million votes in her nomination battle with Obama, and the enthusiastic support of her followers is critical to Obama's hopes of winning in November. She will speak Tuesday night, but her message at events behind the scenes may be just as important.
In an important shift, Democratic officials confirmed Sunday that Clinton will release her delegates to Obama at a reception on Wednesday. Clinton's gesture has the potential to reduce the appearance of friction while reinforcing her status as one of the party's most formidable power brokers.
At Obama's request, meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee's credentials committee voted Sunday to restore full voting strength to delegates from Michigan and Florida, ending a tiff that started when the two states moved up their primary-election dates without party permission. At the end of the primary season, when her defeat was all but certain, Clinton waged a fierce battle to restore the states' delegates, but the DNC held firm, cutting each contingent in half.
"Today, our party unites once and for all," said Florida Democratic Party Chair Karen L. Thurman.
As delegates and media poured into Denver, Obama campaigned in Eau Claire, Wis., kicking off a four-day tour of swing states. He sought to project the image of an average American who enjoys family gatherings and barbecues. And he continued to revel in the positive reception to Saturday's announcement of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. as his running mate. Obama called the veteran senator from Delaware "the right man for the job."
Biden prepared Sunday to travel to Denver the next day, while Obama toiled over the acceptance speech that he will deliver at Denver's 75,000-seat Invesco Field at Mile High on Thursday. The address remains a work in progress, the senator from Illinois said, telling reporters that it "may not be as good as other headliners the first three nights, but hopefully it will make clear the choice the American people will face in November."
As Clinton and Obama supporters come together in Denver, Obama campaign aides made sure reporters knew about two phone calls that took place last week: one between Obama and former president Bill Clinton, and another between Obama and the former first lady. Obama called the former president during his campaign swing through Virginia last Thursday, the same day he called Biden to offer him the No. 2 spot on the ticket, several aides said.
Obama did not tell Bill Clinton about the pick, nor did the two discuss the former president's role at the convention, which is expected to consist of a speech Wednesday night. The two men had a lengthy, substantive discussion of various issues, one Obama aide said, noting that it was their third conversation since the end of the primaries. "They talk from time to time," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "Barack likes to talk to him about his views."
The candidate called Hillary Clinton the following day, hours before news of Biden's selection broke, but the contents of that conversation are being tightly held. Burton said the Obama campaign is prepared for demonstrations by some of her supporters.
"There are going to be some folks who make a point that they still have pretty strong feelings about the primary," Burton said. "This is a 16-month affair. It's normal."
Obama is seeking to shift his campaign events to a more intimate scale as he prepares to head into the outsize convention, where he will address a Super Bowl-size stadium crowd with a sky camera floating overhead. After a long night of speechwriting, he flew Sunday morning to Wisconsin, attended church and spoke to a small group of supporters at an outdoor picnic site. Standing in a clearing near a playground, with a barbecue buffet set up nearby, Obama presented himself not as the celebrity that McCain has portrayed in a barrage of recent television ads but as a typical dad worried about his young daughters. That's one reason he is running for president, he told the Wisconsin crowd.
He is also scheduled to visit Iowa and Montana as he winds his way toward Colorado. After the convention, Obama and Biden will travel together for the first time, taking a bus tour through battleground states in the Midwest that will coincide next weekend with the funeral of Democratic Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones in Ohio.
That tour is likely to coincide with the announcement of McCain's running mate, the stakes of which may be higher after the mostly positive reaction to the Biden selection. In an interview broadcast Sunday, McCain insisted that he had not yet made up his mind.
"I'd love to tell you that I've made the decision. But we're still in the process," he told Katie Couric of CBS News. Whoever McCain picks will now be faced with Biden, a pugnacious debater whose foreign policy expertise will be tough to match. That could spark concerns about two of those considered to be at the top of McCain's list, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, neither of whom has experience abroad.
Biden's appeal in heartland battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio could also prompt McCain to focus on someone who can compete in that all-important region. Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, who served as the first secretary of homeland security, could fit the bill. McCain could also be forced to look beyond those who have been most prominently mentioned as possible ticket mates.
"I am looking for someone who shares my values, my principles and my priorities," he told Couric.
Staff writer Michael D. Shear, traveling with the McCain campaign, contributed to this report.