By Jonathan Weisman and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 26, 2008 11:40 AM
DENVER Aug. 26 -- A day after opening their national convention with tributes from Sen. Barack Obama's wife and one of his strongest supporters, Democrats Tuesday turned to their presidential candidate's former leading rival in an effort to unite the party for its fall battle against Republican Sen. John McCain.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the former presidential front-runner who was beaten out by Obama in this year's primaries and caucuses, takes center stage Tuesday night for a prime-time convention speech that analysts expect to feature strong attacks on McCain and the Bush administration.
With some delegates looking for more of a "red-meat" approach after Monday night's family-themed speech by Michelle Obama and an emotional address by an ailing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the task of sharpening the Democrats' attacks on the GOP appeared to be falling to Clinton, especially after McCain (Ariz.) began using Clinton's own words in political ads criticizing Obama.
The night's keynote speaker, former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner, has indicated that he does not plan to give a red-meat speech attacking the Republicans. Warner, who served as governor from 2002 to 2006, is running for the seat of retiring GOP Sen. John W. Warner in a state that has not voted Democratic in a presidential election since 1964 but that is now considered a swing state.
Clinton has been publicly urging supporters to throw their full support to Obama and has denounced McCain's attempts to drive a wedge between them. That Republican effort continued with a new McCain ad that uses Clinton's words about her rival during her primary campaign in an ad about a 3 a.m. phone call: "I know Senator McCain has a lifetime of experience that he will bring to the White House. And Senator Obama has a speech he gave in 2002." A narrator in the McCain ad continues: "Hillary's right. John McCain for president."
In her speech Tuesday night, Clinton also faces the task of convincing supporters of "the intensity, the strength of her commitment" to Obama, according to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, himself a former Democratic presidential contender. In his own convention speech Wednesday, he told CNN's "American Morning" program, he plans to get tough on the Republicans over foreign policy and other matters.
"Now, these next three days, I think you're going to see an intensity of attack," Richardson said. "But, you know, you don't want to get negative, choppy, every single day. And I think what we're seeing today here is a Democratic Party that's positive, that's unified, that wants to heal, that wants to bring bipartisanship. And, you know, I'll talk about that too."
Another speaker addressing the convention Tuesday night, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), also signaled a harsher tone toward McCain and the GOP. "If the Republicans are good at anything . . . they are experts at fear and smear, divide and conquer," he told National Public Radio. "What we have to do, though, I think, is rebut those charges, but also to point out the real McCain record." He said McCain "wants to privatize Social Security" and that Obama "understands a lot more about how people have to struggle economically than John McCain will ever in his whole lifetime."
Addressing the convention Monday night, Michelle Obama delivered a tribute to her husband and a call to the country to listen "to our hopes instead of our fears," and "to stop doubting and to start dreaming."
Seeking to ground the senator from Illinois in the experience of America's working class while recapturing the lofty ideals that propelled him toward his party's presidential nomination, Michelle Obama's family-themed speech was the climax of a dramatic opening day for a political party confident of its chances of capturing the White House but still struggling to lay aside its own divisions. A weak economy and a war in Iraq now in its sixth year have offered Democrats and their young candidate an ideal political environment in which to push for widespread change. But Obama has yet to close the deal with the electorate, or even some of the Democrats who backed Clinton.
But once the curtain went up on a raucous Pepsi Center Monday night, the party appeared poised to come together. The delegates cheered every mention of Clinton and gave the same treatment to Obama's running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), and the party's 2004 nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). Kennedy, who has a brain tumor but appeared spry in a surprise appearance, offered a poignant moment of reflection on the last time a youthful Democrat won the White House. To thunderous applause, he promised to be present in the Senate in January to greet a new Democratic president.
"The work begins anew. The hope rises again, and the dream lives on," he said, echoing his speech from the 1980 Democratic convention, in which he was denied the party's nomination.
Michelle Obama also did her part to try to heal the lingering wounds of the long struggle for the nomination when she recognized Clinton, "who put those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, so that our daughters -- and our sons -- can dream a little bigger and aim a little higher."
But the stream of new faces -- including Michelle Obama's brother, Craig Robinson, and freshman Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), one of the candidate's fiercest supporters -- and a rousing anthem from John Legend, who helped craft the viral music videos that have powered the Obama movement, signaled that the torch is changing hands. Caroline Kennedy tried to bridge that generational shift when she told the crowd, "I have never had someone inspire me the way people tell me my father inspired them, but I do now: Barack Obama."
When Michelle Obama took to the podium, she was greeted with sustained applause and a sea of blue "Michelle" placards.
"Barack doesn't care where you're from, or what your background is, or what party -- if any -- you belong to. That's not how he sees the world," she said. "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."
After she finished, daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, met her onstage, where they were soon joined by her husband via a video link from Kansas City, Mo., where he watched the speech at the home of Jim and Alicia Girardeau. "You were unbelievable," he said, "and you look pretty cute," to which Sasha replied, "Thanks."
Michelle Obama's task was to reintroduce her husband to the nation as the candidate most capable of responding to the struggles of ordinary Americans, weary of war and beset by debt, division and fears of decline.
"Even though he had this funny name, even though he'd grown up all the way across the continent, in Hawaii, his family was so much like mine," she recalled of the man who courted her as a young lawyer. "He was raised by grandparents who were working-class folks just like my parents, and by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills just like we did. And like my family, they scrimped and saved so that he could have opportunities they never had themselves. And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you're going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them, and even if you don't agree with them."
Standing "where the current of history meets this new tide of hope," the woman who would be the first African American first lady looked ahead to an evening when her daughters would tell their children about the 2008 election, and "how this time, in this great country -- where a girl from the South Side of Chicago can go to college and law school, and the son of a single mother from Hawaii can go all the way to the White House -- we committed ourselves to building the world as it should be."
Indeed, the anti-Republican red meat was left for an unlikely source, soft-spoken former GOP congressman Jim Leach of Iowa, who hailed Obama as "a transcendent candidate" as he criticized his own party.
"The party that once emphasized individual rights has gravitated in recent years toward regulating values," Leach said. "The party of military responsibility has taken us to war with a country that did not attack us. The party that formerly led the world in arms control has moved to undercut treaties crucial to the defense of the Earth. The party that prides itself on conservation has abdicated its responsibilities in the face of global warming. And the party historically anchored in fiscal restraint has nearly doubled the national debt, squandering our precious resources in an undisciplined and unprecedented effort to finance a war with tax cuts."
Campaigning in Iowa Monday, Obama tried to ease his party's divisions, conceding that "there are going to be some of Senator Clinton's supporters who we're going to have to work hard to persuade to come on board -- that's not surprising." But, he added: "If you take a look this week, I am absolutely convinced that both Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton understand the stakes."
But the nerves were not easily calmed ahead of Hillary Clinton's speech on Tuesday and Bill Clinton's appearance on Wednesday. Hillary Clinton addressed the New York delegation at a breakfast Monday morning. But while supporters waved signs declaring "Hillary Made History," the senator's focus was on the future.
"We were not all on the same side as Democrats, but we are now," she said. "We are united and we are together and we are determined."
Clinton is expected to release her delegates to Obama on Tuesday. That symbolic gesture reduces the prospects for major disruptions when the roll is called to nominate the senator from Illinois -- a historic moment when Obama will become the first black politician to head a major party's national ticket.
Divisions clearly remain, however, and the McCain campaign did its best to foment unrest. It released a new advertisement featuring Wisconsin delegate Debra Bartoshevich declaring herself "a proud Hillary Clinton Democrat" who for the first time is supporting a Republican, McCain.
"A lot of Democrats will vote McCain," she says in the spot. "It's okay, really."
Clinton repudiated the ad in her appearance before the New York delegation, saying: "I'm Hillary Clinton, and I do not approve that message." But Howard Wolfson, who was her communications director, went public with the grievances her husband is still nursing. Writing in the New Republic, Wolfson said the former president "feels like the Obama campaign ran against and systematically dismissed his administration's accomplishments. And he feels like he was painted as a racist during the primary process."
Wolfson made it clear that he thinks it is Obama who needs to make amends.
"Senator Obama would go a long way towards healing these wounds if he were to specifically praise the accomplishments of the Clinton presidency in a line or two during his speech on Thursday," he concluded. "That should be painless."
Branigin reported from Washington. Staff writers Shailagh Murray in Denver and Anne E. Kornblut, traveling with Obama, contributed to this report.