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DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION

Rocking the house and the vote

The stadium scene is part celebration, part a huge call for campaign volunteers.

August 29, 2008|Michael Finnegan and John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writers

DENVER — Not since John F. Kennedy's speech at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1960 has the Democratic Party staged a spectacle so grand for the acceptance speech of its White House nominee.

"Dreamgirls" star Jennifer Hudson set the mood, belting out "The Star-Spangled Banner" hours before Barack Obama's arrival on the royal-blue carpet at center stage. Giant video screens marked the milestone, showing the "I Have a Dream" speech that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave exactly 45 years earlier.

With performances by Sheryl Crow and Stevie Wonder, Invesco Field at Mile High seemed more like a rock concert than a political convention, even with state delegations spread across the football field, waving American flags.

The Agape Choir of Culver City -- the women dressed in a rainbow of bright-colored gowns -- accompanied singer will.i.am on his YouTube hit "Yes, We Can," an Obama campaign anthem.

But the closing event of the party's national convention was not just celebration: Obama's campaign, built in no small part on the prowess of its grass-roots organization, used the stadium to expand its reach further.

"Our whole goal is to turn the 75,000 people here in this stadium into grass-roots volunteers," said Jenny Backus, a convention spokeswoman for the campaign. In fact, there were about 84,000 in attendance. "This is all about neighbors talking to neighbors, family members talking to family members."

The main focus was on Colorado, one of the most contested states in Obama's race against Republican rival John McCain. The campaign set up 130 phone lines in bleachers just behind the southern end zone. Hula teacher Miriam Paisner was there -- perched in a blue folding seat -- making calls to fellow Colorado residents on Obama's behalf.

Paisner, 70, who wore a straw hat to protect herself from the sun, recalled how after the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy she had wondered whether America would ever elect a black president.

"It's a dream of mine come true, an unbelievable miracle," she said of Obama's nomination.

Placing calls in the row behind her was teacher Peggy Mihelich of Fort Collins, Colo.

"Last time I worked for a presidential campaign was McGovern," said Mihelich, who had just bought -- and changed into -- a T-shirt showing four images of Obama above the words "Hope," "Believe," "Yes We Can" and "Change."

"Obama is getting people excited who haven't been excited for a long time," she said.

As Paisner and Mihelich signed up volunteers by phone, Obama's campaign team called for more help from the stage.

"Take your phones out, folks," Ray Rivera, the campaign's Colorado director, told the crowd.

He asked them to send text messages about Obama to the campaign, which could harvest their cellphone numbers for subsequent volunteer efforts.

It was a technique that yielded 3 million numbers when the campaign called on Americans to send a text requesting notice of Obama's announcement of a running mate.

One of the campaign's top goals is to register new voters who support Obama, an endeavor that was highly successful during the primary race.

"Registration deadlines will be here before we know it, so we need to reach out to every single person . . . who we think might support Barack Obama and Joe Biden and get them registered," campaign manager David Plouffe told the crowd.

"This election will be here before we know it," he said. "And over half the states have early vote, so voting will begin in earnest in a lot of places in about five weeks. There is no time to lose."

Dave Boyd took in the scene from a seat near the top of the stadium. The podium looked fit for an ant, but the view was sweeping.

"There's not going to be a seat left," said Boyd, a 56-year-old business agent for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 in Denver.

His union had spent a week and a half stapling vertical signs onto cardboard poles for delegates to wave. Volunteers were rewarded with stadium tickets.

"We're in nosebleed territory," said Dermot Damian Givens, a Los Angeles attorney who drove to Denver with his 8-year-old son, Damian, hoping he'd be able to get in.

"Just being here is so great," Givens said.

Many of the best seats on the stadium floor went to delegates -- particularly those from battleground states like Iowa, which gave Obama his first victory in the 5-month-long Democratic nominating process.

"We started the rock rolling," said Michelle Michalec of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "But we can't take all the credit."

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

john.mitchell@latimes.com

Times staff writer Robin Abcarian contributed to this report.

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