A Portrait of the Candidate, but Dots Left to Connect

By Dan Balz
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 25 -- Democrats opened their convention here Monday night with an air of expectation and a sense of uncertainty.

They have come to Denver ready to make history with their nomination of Barack Obama for president, but they are nonetheless nervous about what has become a fiercely competitive general-election race against John McCain. Opening night began the job of filling out Obama's profile for skeptical voters, but what it lacked was any effort to frame for the electorate the choices in November or the case against the Republican candidate.

It was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, ailing from incurable brain cancer, who provided the binding moment with an appearance onstage that brought tears and cheers from the assembled delegates and party leaders. His voice strong and resonant, Kennedy asked the party to rally behind Obama and to believe in what his election can do to change the country. Kennedy vowed to be in the Senate in January to see it happen.

"I have come here tonight," he said in his rich Boston accent, "to stand with you to change America, to restore its future, to rise to our best ideals and to elect Barack Obama president of the United States."

But it was Michelle Obama who provided even more compelling testimony, linking her husband's life and values to an American story that was aimed at easing concerns among voters who say they don't yet know enough about the man who will claim his party's nomination on Thursday.

"Barack doesn't care where you're from, or what your background is, or what party -- if any -- you belong to," she said. "See, that's just not how he sees the world. He knows that thread that connects us -- our belief in America's promise, our commitment to our children's future -- is strong enough to hold us together as one nation even when we disagree."

Monday's opening events highlighted the degree to which Obama's advisers know they have work to do this week, from binding together a Democratic family still divided after a hard-fought nomination battle between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to providing reassurance that the man they will nominate shares the values of Middle America and has the toughness and judgment to lead the country.

For the true partisans and the Obama loyalists, whose passionate support propelled him to the nomination against sizable odds, those qualities have never been in doubt. Obama's message of changing Washington and turning the page on the politics of the past decade has galvanized a generation of younger voters and re-instilled a sense of idealism in at least part of the older generation.

But as the convention opened, there were others -- including strong allies of Obama -- openly expressing the view that the candidate and his party need a successful week in Denver to give them the energy they need to blunt fresh momentum by McCain and his campaign. McCain's aggressiveness over the past month has unsettled many Democrats, and they are looking for the convention to help reverse things.

One of those was Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Obama's home-state colleague and one of his closest and most enthusiastic supporters. At a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Durbin volunteered to reporters, using a basketball metaphor, that over the past week or more McCain "has had a 12-0 run." He added hopefully: "We know the momentum can shift, and it's going to shift starting in Denver."

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, conceding that the tough tactics employed by the McCain campaign over the past month have taken a toll on Obama, told Washington Post reporters and editors that it's time for the prospective nominee to get moving. "Now is the time for Barack Obama to begin the second wave of this campaign," he said.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was a strong supporter of Clinton in the primaries but made a quick pivot to promote Obama's candidacy within the Latino community, agreed that McCain had won the battle of the month between Obama's overseas trip and the start of the Democratic convention. "They were on the offensive," he said. "You're going to see us coming out of this convention strong."

The challenge was underscored as well by a new report by the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, which said that Obama is underperforming among conservative Democrats in Macomb County, Mich., which has embodied the term "Reagan Democrats" for two decades. "There is a problem with Reagan Democrats," the report concluded.

Democrats are excited about this convention, reflecting their hunger to recapture the White House after eight years of President Bush. But they know that for that to happen, they must make the most of it to send Obama out of Denver with a fresh wind at his back.

That will require several things to happen. The first is the reunification of a party where in some quarters Democrats are still nursing the wounds of the Obama-Clinton nomination battle.

Clinton will speak Tuesday night, and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, will speak on Wednesday. In between will be a roll call in which her name is put in nomination, a concession to the 18 million votes she received in the primaries and caucuses and to the need to give her supporters a moment to savor before full attention turns to Obama.

Another key is Obama's acceptance speech on Thursday night at the football stadium that is home to the Denver Broncos. The theatrics of that event are guaranteed -- 70,000 or more people cheering on their nominee. But what he says, not only about himself but also about how he plans to confront the country's problems, will be even more important.

In between, his convention planners looked to paint a portrait of Obama through the words of friends and colleagues, and that began Monday in Denver's Pepsi Center. The portrait the speakers drew was of a young man like many in America, who was raised by a single mother, who came from a family of modest means, who struggled as a young man, who found himself and who has gone on to make extraordinary accomplishments.

Alexi Giannoulis, the Illinois state treasurer, put it this way: "Barack Obama has been my friend, my mentor, my inspiration. Now, he's going to be the next president of the United States of America. Because his story is our story. Your story. My story. It's the American story."

Validation came from a range of speakers including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Obama's half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. She described Obama as someone who could help the nation and its children achieve their dreams, as she said he had inspired her.

Step by step, the Democrats and Obama's convention planners hope to lead voters to a comfort zone with the candidate. If they are successful, and he delivers what he hopes to on Thursday night, Democrats will leave Denver more confident that they can win what they know will be a difficult battle between now and November. But Monday's opening night left much to do in the days ahead.

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