All eyes on Michelle Obama

August 25, 2008 4:23:41 AM PDT
The Democratic National Convention opens Monday, a choreographed show of unity more important this year after the rough-and-tumble primary contest that put Barack Obama days away from making history as the first black presidential nominee of a major political party. Opening night at the Pepsi Center, the main venue for most of the four-day gathering, aims to tell the Illinois senator's personal story to the millions of voters nationwide who will begin tuning in to the contest to replace the unpopular Republican President Bush.

Who better to tell his story than Michelle Obama, his wife of nearly 16 years? The stage Monday night belongs to this potential first lady for a prime-time speech meant to serve a dual purpose: humanize him and show up her critics before her largest audience yet.

With Democrats and convention delegates streaming to the Mile High City, party officials worked to assure a harmonious week.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, who lost the nomination to Obama after a bruising five-month contest, was expected by midweek to release the delegates she won in primaries and caucuses and encourage them to support her former rival.

And by unanimous vote, the party's credentials committee restored full voting rights to delegates from Florida and Michigan. The party had stripped both states of their voting rights for holding primaries before the rules said they could. The committee vote was taken at Obama's behest, and Democrats hope the goodwill gesture will help improve their standing in two important states.

Obama, slowly making his way to Denver via a tour of battleground states, said Sunday that one of his goals is for voters to come away from the convention thinking he is one of them. His uncommon name and family background still concern some voters.

"I think what you'll conclude is, 'He's sort of like us,"' Obama said in Eau Claire, Wis. "'He comes from a middle-class background. He went to school on scholarships. He had to pay off student loans. He and his wife had to worry about child care. They had to figure out how to start a college fund for their kids."

Republicans seek to portray Obama as an Ivy-league-educated elitist. His background - white mother from Kansas, black father from Kenya, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia - has been grist for the rumor mill, leading some voters to believe he is a Muslim or unpatriotic.

Obama closes the convention Thursday night when the action shifts to Invesco Field at Mile High stadium, where the 47-year-old, first-term senator will give his speech accepting the nomination from the 50-yard line. He said Sunday he was "still tooling around with my speech a little bit."

He is scheduled to campaign Monday in Iowa.

Republican rival John McCain, meanwhile, wasn't disappearing from the campaign trail entirely. He was using an appearance Monday on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and newspaper interviews to stay in touch with voters. And, there's continued interest in his choice of a running mate.

In Denver on Sunday, about 1,000 anti-war activists marched peacefully through downtown, waving signs and chanting, "Stop the torture, stop the war. That's what we're fighting for." The demonstration was the first of at least five planned by the group Recreate 68, a play on the protests that turned into riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Inside the Pepsi Center, sound technicians made final preparations to the high-tech stage and conducted one final rehearsal after working six days a week for seven weeks to set everything up. Up in the rafters behind the stage were large plastic bags stuffed with signs mounted on white cardboard tube handles that spelled "M-I-C-H-E-L-L-E" vertically in white against a blue background.

Michelle Obama arrived in Denver on Sunday, accompanied by her daughters, Malia and Sasha, and her mother, Marian Robinson.

Part of her assignment is to share the husband and dad side of Barack Obama, to tell the story of this son of a single mother of modest means, his struggles and the opportunities that brought him to where he is. Her other job is to help settle some doubts about herself. Critics pounced after her statement that the campaign had made her proud of her country for the first time in her adult life. She said she meant pride in the political process.

Besides Michelle Obama, other speakers Monday night include Barack Obama's sister Maya Soetero-Ng and Craig Robinson, his brother-in-law. The schedule includes a surprise speaker, Republican Iowa Sen. Jim Leach, a moderate who broke ranks with his party this month and endorsed Obama.

An emotional moment is anticipated during a video tribute to Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. The liberal stalwart was diagnosed in May with a malignant brain tumor, and has had surgery and a six-week course of chemotherapy and radiation.


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