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'Part celebration and part anxiety'

August 25, 2008|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — Striving for unity and spoiling for a fight with Republicans, Democrats from across the country gathered Sunday on the front edge of the Rocky Mountains for a history-making convention tinged with concern over a presidential race grown closer than many expected.

The nervousness belies broad political trends favoring the party and Barack Obama, its nominee-to-be: an unpopular war, a sour economy and a Republican president at basement level in opinion polls. Despite those advantages -- and his prodigious fundraising -- Obama's lead in national surveys has all but evaporated over the last month, renewing concerns about the senator's relative inexperience and political durability.

"It's going to be part celebration and part anxiety," Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, said of the Democratic gathering that begins today.

By sharpening his message over the next four days -- narrowing the gap between his high-flown rhetoric and voters' kitchen-table concerns -- and building his image beyond a celebrity stereotype, the Illinois senator hopes to make the election a choice between himself and GOP Sen. John McCain, not just a straight referendum on Obama. He also hopes to patch, once and for all, his differences with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and her followers.

"It's important for him and the convention as a whole to lay out the distinctions and comparisons between himself and McCain," said Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist. "He needs to show that he can take off the gloves."

Whatever happens in November, history will be made this week in the thin night air of Denver.

Obama's nomination and his 50-yard-line acceptance speech Thursday in the city's football stadium will not only cap a remarkable political upset, but will also represent a milestone: It will be the first time an African American carries a major party's standard into the fall presidential campaign.

More than 50,000 visitors -- delegates, political dignitaries, protesters, lobbyists and thousands of reporters dispatched to chronicle their movements -- continued to pour into this capital city Sunday, beneath a sunny blue sky. Police swarmed downtown, giving the blocks around the convention site a paramilitary feel, and the week's first organized protest -- an antiwar march -- came off without a hitch.

Campaigning Sunday in Wisconsin, a November battleground, Obama continued to sharpen his rhetorical attack on McCain, focusing on economic issues and offering, strategists said, a taste of the days to come.

"My main goal at this convention and through my speech is to convey a sense of urgency that so many families are feeling across the country," Obama told the Denver Post in an interview published Sunday. "And to present a clear choice between continuing the same economic policies . . . and a new approach."

Obama also needs to show -- if polls are any indication -- that he is more than a political flash with a gift for oratory and a pleasing but vague message of change. "He needs to introduce himself to voters who know him by name, but not by substance," said Peter Hart, a veteran Democratic pollster.

The coming days and weeks will present the sternest test of Obama's brief but charmed national political career.

He faces a party still not altogether healed from a long and bruising primary season. Perhaps the biggest question this week is how his vanquished opponent, Sen. Clinton of New York, and her most die-hard backers -- including her husband, former President Bill Clinton -- will comport themselves.

Sen. Clinton is the featured speaker Tuesday night on a program devoted to a celebration of women in politics. Although she has repeatedly endorsed Obama, there is simmering resentment in both camps over their primary battle. With little other drama this week, Clinton's every move will be examined for any sign of equivocation or insincerity. The former president will address delegates Wednesday night and face the same scrutiny.

"They have to validate Obama," said Brazile, a Washington, D.C., delegate who was neutral in the primaries. "She has to get up and tell her supporters, 'I trust Sen. Obama to carry out the agenda we put forth in the primaries.' And Bill Clinton has to say, 'I believe he will make a great commander in chief. I know he has what it takes.' "

Making mischief, the McCain campaign Sunday broadcast a TV spot, "Passed Over," that featured some of Clinton's primary season attacks on Obama and suggested they were the reason he chose Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware as his running mate. Clinton, through a spokeswoman, reiterated her support for Obama and Biden.

Though her name will be placed in nomination, Clinton -- in a further conciliatory move -- is expected to release her pledged delegates Wednesday and urge them to cast their votes for her former rival.

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