Anxious Party Hopes to Show Strong Obama
DENVER — Democrats gathering here for their nominating convention are significantly more nervous about Senator Barack Obama’s prospects this fall than they were a month ago, and are urging him to use the next four days to address weaknesses in his candidacy and lingering party divisions from the primary fight.
Mr. Obama’s aides said they had learned from what they described as the mistake of the 2004 Democratic convention — when aides to Senator John Kerry’s campaign sought to forbid convention speakers from going after President Bush — and would use their time to draw contrasts with Senator John McCain, particularly on the economy and his opposition to abortion rights.
“The stakes of this election will be made very clear,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s chief strategist. “We are going to define the choice.”
At the same time, acknowledging persistent unease with Mr. Obama among a significant segment of voters, his aides said they would use speeches and presentations during the next four days, including having Al Gore introduce Mr. Obama for his acceptance speech Thursday night, to offer a fuller biography and a more detailed plan of what he would do as president.
They said they were looking to 1992 as a model, when Bill Clinton successfully used his convention to address persistent questions about his personal life and what he would do as president.
Democrats arriving here said they remained confident that Mr. Obama would leave Denver at the end of the week in a strong position to defeat Mr. McCain. But many Democrats made it clear that a convention they had once anticipated would be a breezy celebration of Mr. Obama had turned into a more sober and consequential event.
This reflected a summer that they said demonstrated Mr. Obama’s vulnerabilities and Mr. McCain’s resilience, and the signs of lingering divisions between some supporters of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Obama.
“Back in June and July, I truly thought he was going to blow McCain out of the water and carry 30 or 40 states,” said Donald Fowler, a former national Democratic chairman who supported Mrs. Clinton in the primary. “What has happened is that Republicans — McCain specifically — have really twisted his great charisma, this electric personality, to discredit his ability, his experience, his capacity, his judgment. I fear they are about to do to him what they did to Gore.”
Discussing the days ahead, Mr. Fowler continued: “Obama has got to do some things that will shore up his ability to lead — not just to charm, but to lead. They’ve got to give credibility to his understanding of foreign policy, his ability to deal with tough people and tough questions, and his ability to be more explicit and convincing on his health care policies and energy policies.”
Dennis McDonald, the Democratic chairman of Montana, a state that Mr. Obama is trying to win from Republicans, said this was a critical opening for Mr. Obama after a month in which polls suggested the race was tightening and events in Russia and Georgia put a new spotlight on foreign affairs, creating an opening that Mr. McCain seized.
“Normally I might say these conventions are not so important, but I don’t think that’s the case this year,” Mr. McDonald said. “There seems to be a sense of urgency. We have had a couple of weeks that were not so good.”
For the most part, this is a confident if slightly anxious party. And many Democrats were cheered by the choice of Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware as Mr. Obama’s running mate, saying he had the potential to help address some of Mr. Obama’s political shortcomings.
At the same time, Democratic officials said Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts was to fly here to attend a tribute in his honor Monday night, though it was unclear whether Mr. Kennedy, who is suffering from brain cancer, would speak.
Still, Democrats said Mr. Obama should offer a concrete idea of what he would do as president, to counter the effort by Republicans to present him as a showman. They said he had to offer a tougher contrast with Mr. McCain.
“I think in the case of McCain, they need to frame him,” said Mr. Kerry, an early Obama supporter who four years ago was nominated by this party as its 2004 presidential nominee. “Viscerally, my feeling is they’ve got to come back at him hard. And they’ve got to do more to complete the task of definition — both definition of him as well as definition of John McCain.”
Joe Trippi, who ran the presidential campaign of one of Mr. Obama’s rivals, John Edwards of North Carolina, said: “He has still got to get to the meat-and-potato, blue-collar workers. This is a big opportunity for him.”
There are some things that may be beyond the control of the Obama campaign. Most pressingly, Democrats said they were worried that the tensions between supporters of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama from the contest that just ended two months ago would spill into public view after her name is entered into nomination, particularly after Mr. Obama bypassed Mrs. Clinton in choosing Mr. Biden.
“I have a lot of doubts that this convention is going to be as persuasive as it should be because they’ve got this damn thing with Hillary,” Mr. Fowler said. “I love Hillary. I was for her. But this is the worst political decision I could imagine. This is supposed to be an Obama celebration. You’re going to get the nomination of someone who came very close to winning and you’re going to get a lot of people in there cheering and hollering and some people booing.”
Mrs. Clinton’s advisers said Sunday that she would move to avoid this by meeting with her delegates on Wednesday and formally urging them to support Mr. Obama in the roll-call vote that night. (Under Democratic Party rules, delegates are permitted to vote for whomever they want.)
Republicans sought to stoke the issue by releasing an advertisement highlighting Mr. Obama’s failure to choose Mrs. Clinton as his running mate, using her words against him from the primary season and implying he passed her over because of them. Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a former Clinton ally who came under attack by the campaign after he endorsed Mr. Obama, said: “There has got to be a full reconciliation between the Clinton people and the Obama people. I think the convention will put to rest any past divisions among supporters.”
The Obama campaign is leaving little to chance. It has created a rapid response team — led by Craig Smith, a former top operative in the Clinton world — to head out to the convention floor at the first sign of any trouble from Clinton supporters.
Mr. Obama’s campaign began sending out a one-page sheet of daily talking points to delegates, instructing them what to say and what to avoid in talking to reporters. (In one last week, according to a recipient, the central thrust was how to parry questions about Clinton-Obama strife and Mrs. Clinton’s speech by saying, “I can’t wait to hear Hillary Clinton talk about the future and am excited that her candidacy is unifying our party!”)