For Veteran Speaker, the Challenge of a Lifetime

Sen. Barack Obama addresses a gathering in Billings, Mont. Tonight, he will speak to 80,000 in Denver, the largest crowd at a Democratic convention since the party's 1960 meeting, which nominated John F. Kennedy.
Sen. Barack Obama addresses a gathering in Billings, Mont. Tonight, he will speak to 80,000 in Denver, the largest crowd at a Democratic convention since the party's 1960 meeting, which nominated John F. Kennedy. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 27 -- Sen. Barack Obama will step onto a stage bordered by Greek columns and walk down a runway that dead-ends at a lectern on an island. There, alone at the center of Colorado's biggest stadium, he will stare out at 2,000 lawn chairs pressed toward the stage, 80,000 people crammed into three levels of seats and 450 stadium spotlights pointed directly at him.

Even for Obama, a veteran speechmaker, the setup at Invesco Field makes for the most intimidating venue of his career. On the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, Obama will become the first African American to accept a major party's nomination for president when he addresses the crowd Thursday night.

His campaign has gambled on the historic moment by creating a stage that will magnify his performance. Succeed here, in front of the largest Democratic National Convention crowd in nearly 50 years, and Obama's speech will be remembered as one of the most powerful moments in modern politics, a perfect launch into the final stage of the general election. Fail, and Obama risks fueling Republicans' criticism that he is an aloof celebrity, fond of speaking to big crowds but incapable of forming genuine connections.

Obama wrote the speech last week in his customary manner, crafting a first draft by hand on yellow legal paper. He studied past convention speeches and found inspiration in remarks by Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, advisers said. Then he sequestered himself in a Chicago hotel room, preferring it to the chaos of his house or campaign headquarters.

His speechwriters have traveled with him, helping trim and edit -- a process that continued Wednesday afternoon as Obama flew into Denver. The longtime aides have learned to leave the essential elements of Obama's speeches intact, those close to the candidate said. Advisers often say Obama is his own best speechwriter. It surprised nobody in his campaign when he seized control of writing Thursday's address and shaping its message.

"I think I have to do two things," Obama said this week. "I want to make the choice between myself and John McCain as clear as possible. I don't want people to be confused. And I also hope that the convention conveys who I am. You know, during the course of a 19-month campaign, I think that you, you're on the television screen, you're in big auditoriums, but sometimes who you are may get lost. And I want people to come away saying, 'Whether I'm voting for or against the guy, I know what he stands for.' "

Obama said he expects his acceptance speech to be "workmanlike," which would mark a major departure from the formula he has relied on during key public moments in his life. In his 1990 speech as incoming president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama told a story of his mixed-race biography that drew the venue's cooks from the kitchen and caused waiters to stop serving, friends who were there recalled. Early this year, he wrote a major speech about race at a moment when his past association with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. threatened to derail his campaign, and delivered it in Philadelphia against the instincts of his closest advisers.

At the last Democratic convention, in Boston in 2004, Obama cemented his reputation as a talented public speaker by delivering a 17-minute keynote address that focused thematically on the country's divisiveness. His speech contained few new ideas, but it transformed him overnight from a little-known Illinois state senator into a national figure.

Thursday's speech, Obama said, will have few similarities to his 2004 address. He has become sensitive to the criticism that his speeches are lacking in content, friends said, and he is expected to outline the ways he will try to address the nation's problems.

But changing his style carries some risks. "You can talk all you want about policies and programs, but that's not what people respond to," said Martin Medhurst, a professor of rhetoric at Baylor University. "People respond when they are touched emotionally, and that's what he's so good at. It's going to be very important in his speech tomorrow night that people get excited emotionally. That's what they want from him."

Obama will step to the lectern under the burden of tremendous expectation. Not since Kennedy spoke to 80,000 people in Los Angeles at the 1960 Democratic convention has a nomination-acceptance speech generated so much anticipation. Public tickets, given away online, disappeared in just more than a day. Some scalpers now sell single tickets for more than $1,000.

At 5 p.m. Thursday, convention officials will close down the Pepsi Center, and the assembled delegates and journalists will migrate one mile west to the football stadium. Traffic officials will close Denver's main highway. A major musical act -- maybe Bon Jovi -- will play a brief set. Confetti and fireworks will shoot into the sky at the end of Obama's speech.

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