Obama is cast as an everyman

Times Staff Writer

Turning the personal into the political, Democrats opened their presidential nominating convention Monday with testimonials to Barack Obama as a husband, father, brother and, above all, a leader able to transcend the nation's long divide across racial and gender lines.

It was a parade of the past and future, with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts -- ailing in the twilight of his 46-year career -- vouching for Obama, who dawned on the national scene at the Democrats' convention four years ago.

Playing the role of chief character witness was Obama's wife, Michelle, who cast herself and her husband as symbols of America's potential and its promise.

"I come here as a wife who loves my husband and believes he will be an extraordinary president," Michelle Obama said, though she never mentioned his effort to break the ultimate racial barrier by winning the White House.

For all of the upbeat talk, tensions continued to stir between supporters of the Illinois senator and Hillary Rodham Clinton, threatening the unity that Democrats desperately seek as they face a rugged fight against Republican John McCain.

None of that friction was visible, however, during the official program beamed worldwide from the star-spangled inside of Denver's Pepsi Center sports arena. The agenda was clear and two-pronged: Build an image of Obama as an everyman and start ripping McCain apart.

The getting-to-know-you phase featured several branches of Obama's family tree, including his brother-in-law, his sister and several longtime friends and associates from his adopted home state of Illinois.

The advocate in chief was Michelle Obama, whose own ascension to the national political stage -- and sometimes tart commentary -- has not always been smooth, or helpful to her husband.

Reaching for the transcendence of her husband's 2004 address at the party's last national gathering -- and his disavowal of a red-and-blue America -- she declared: "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. 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."

Much of her 20-minute speech was simple and plain-spoken, delivered in a crisp tone. To those who would question her patriotism, as some have, Obama offered a long and passionate paean to America's possibility, ending with the affirmation: "That is why I love this country."

Michelle Obama is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, now on leave from her job as an executive at one of Chicago's largest medical centers. Still, she stressed her blue-collar upbringing on the city's Southside and her concerns for her daughters' futures.

She described meeting her husband and discovering that, despite his "funny name," they shared the same values, in his case instilled by the single mother and grandparents who raised him: "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."

She also reached out to Clinton's supporters, even before she praised her husband's running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, saying the votes cast for New York's senator "put those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling so that our daughters -- and sons -- can dream a little bigger and aim a little higher." The crowd roared its approval.

The emotional high point of the evening was a surprise appearance by Kennedy, 76, who is battling brain cancer. He walked gingerly across the stage flashing his thumbs up to delegates, who leaped to their feet in an exuberant ovation.

When he spoke, his voice was strong. Looking out on a sea of blue-and-white "Kennedy" signs, the snowy-haired senator summoned memories of his brother, the late President John F. Kennedy, and the man-on-the-moon challenge he laid down for his countrymen.

Kennedy urged Americans to "rise to our best ideals" in November and offered Obama as the embodiment of that aspiration. "Barack Obama will close the book on the old politics of race and gender, of group against group, of straight against gay," Kennedy said.

Delaware Sen. Biden was among those rising to their feet in tribute. Kennedy's niece, California First Lady Maria Shriver, looked on with tears in her eyes.

But it was not all high tone and uplifting oratory.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was among those who took up a cudgel against McCain, criticizing the Arizona senator's positions on issues including the economy, healthcare and energy policy.

"Republicans say John McCain has experience," Pelosi told the crowd. "We say John McCain has the experience of being wrong!" She led delegates in a call and response: "Barack Obama is right," Pelosi said, and the faithful responded, "John McCain is wrong!"

As part of the two-track strategy, Obama's campaign launched a TV spot in battleground states jabbing McCain on the economy and tying him to President Bush. The ad rewrote lyrics from Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World" -- "Don't know much about industry / Really can't explain the price of gas / Or what has happened to the middle class" -- and featured several pictures of McCain and Bush. One showed the two men embracing, with McCain's face buried in the president's shoulder.

The McCain camp put up a spot featuring a Clinton supporter, Wisconsin's Debra Bartoshevich, saying she had switched her allegiance to the GOP nominee-to-be. "A lot of Democrats will vote McCain," she says. "It's OK, really."

Clinton responded with a statement strongly endorsing Obama yet again. "I just want to make it absolutely clear, we cannot afford four more years of George W. Bush's failed policies in America, and that's what we would get with John McCain."

But after a long and bitter primary, the lingering resentments are not easily papered over with sunny press statements.

Publicly, the two camps worked to minimize any hint of hard feelings. "There is no stronger surrogate for Sen. Obama than Sen. Clinton," Valerie Jarrett, a friend and close advisor to Obama, told reporters. Jarrett did allow that "it may take a little time for some people to come around."

Privately, aides to the Clintons and Obama continued to take potshots and grumble about perceived slights and the seeming presumptuousness of the other side.

One irritant is the speech that Bill Clinton is to give Wednesday night, a session devoted to national security issues. A former advisor to the Clintons said Monday that the former president was not happy being told he should stick to that topic. Obama sought to quiet the rumblings as he campaigned in Iowa, telling reporters he told Clinton that he was free to say whatever he wished.

"Bill Clinton knows a little bit about trying to yank an economy out of the doldrums and helping middle-class families. And it wouldn't make much sense for me to want to edit his remarks to prevent him from making a strong case about why we need fundamental economic change in this country," Obama said.

Another sticking point was the choreography of Wednesday's roll call of states, which will formally install Obama as the Democratic nominee. It is a traditional piece of political theater usually given over to cornball testimonials to the folks back home. Clinton is expected to urge her delegates to back Obama, but told reporters some of them "feel an obligation to the people who sent them here" to cast their ballots for the New York senator.

The evening ended with a made-for-TV scene of family togetherness, as Obama's image was beamed into the convention hall from Kansas City, where he plans to campaign today.

"Hi, Daddy!" his daughter Sasha, 7, called out to his image on a giant video screen.

"Michelle, you were unbelievable," Obama said. "And you also look very cute."

"That's Sasha," Michelle Obama said.

"Daddy, what city are you in?" Sasha asked.

"I'm in Kansas City, sweetie. And Malia, Sasha, how do you think Mom did?"

"I think she did good," Sasha said.

Obama laughed with the convention audience. "I think so too," he said.

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

Times staff writers Robin Abcarian, Michael Finnegan, Doyle McManus and Peter Nicholas and Chicago Tribune staff writers Jim Tankersley, John D. McCormick and Christi Parsons contributed to this report.

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Top of the Ticket

Times reporters are blogging daily from Denver in Top of the Ticket. Follow the news as it happens, and see photos and video from inside and around the convention venues at latimes.com/ticket.

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