Michelle Obama takes spotlight

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The Independent US

Two powerful speeches, one by an ailing Senator Edward Kennedy, the other by Michelle Obama, electrified Democrats gathered in Denver last night, as they prepared to formally nominate Barack Obama the party’s presidential candidate on Thursday.

Mrs Obama spoke extensively about her tight knit Chicago family, while emphasising her love of her country – which Republican opponents continue to question. A remarkably spry Senator Kennedy, who is fighting brain cancer, brought the crowd to its feet in a surprise appearance. They waved thousands of signs emblazoned with the name Kennedy as he was introduced by his niece, Caroline Kennedy — the last surviving child of President John F. Kennedy.

Mr Kennedy brought tears to the eyes of many delegates as he promised to be in the Senate in January to welcome a new Democratic president.

"The work begins anew. The hope rises again, and the dream lives on," he said, in lines which recalled his 1980 speech also at the Democratic convention when he failed to win the party's nomination.

As a new generation of leaders took over the helm of the Democratic party, Mrs Obama opened the Convention calling on America to listen "to our hopes instead of our fears," and "to stop doubting and to start dreaming."

She also recognised the achievements of Mrs Clinton, "who put those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, so that our daughters - and our sons - can dream a little bigger and aim a little higher."

Mrs Obama’s carefully choreographed speech emphasised her own working class roots and those of her husband, and the ideals of public service that have propelled both their careers. Her speech was preceded by the film, 'South Side Girl', describing her early live in the impoverished South Side of Chicago. It was all designed to present a warm and fuzzy image of a woman who has appeared harsh and strident to many Americans.

"I come here as a wife who loves my husband and believes he will be an extraordinary president," she said, without mentioning that, if elected, he would be the first black president of the United States.

She also sought to humanise Mr Obama, painting him as an everyman - a husband, father, brother and a leader who might overcome the country’s racial divide – in contrast to his image as a remote and even foreign figure to many working class voters.

He is “the same man who drove me and our new baby daughter home from the hospital 10 years ago this summer,” she said and described him “inching along at a snail’s pace, peering anxiously at us in the rear-view mirror, feeling the whole weight of her future in his hands.”

The speeches enlivened the crowd, restoring hopes of victory in November, despite a recent negative run of opinion polls and a breakout of bitterness with Hillary Clinton’s defeated faction.

But even as the four-day convention opened there was more evidence of the deep unease among Democratic voters about the choice of Barack Obama as its presidential candidate.

A majority of those who backed Mrs Clinton for the nomination are still not prepared to support the Obama ticket in November's election, according to a new poll.

Behind the scenes there was also an ugly clash between top associates of Mrs Clinton and the Obama camp at the way she was overlooked for the party's vice-presidential nomination. Mrs Clinton's advisers were described by a top Obama supporter as acting like "Japanese soldiers in the South Pacific still fighting after the war is over".

Democratic apparatchiks are now wringing their hands that Mr Obama has yet to close the deal with millions of Democrats who did not support him in the primaries. A Gallup/USA Today poll revealed that only 47 per cent of Clinton supporters will back the Obama ticket, and that another 23 per cent say they may jump ship for the Republican, John McCain, or the independent Ralph Nader before the election.

This is deeply worrying for Senator Obama, who has seen Mr McCain gain steadily in the polls, to a point where they are in a dead heat.

"He has still got to get to the meat-and-potato, blue-collar workers," the veteran Democratic operative Joe Trippi said. "This [week] is a big opportunity for him."

Michelle Obama's soft-focus speech was expected to do little to quell the bickering between the two camps.

As the row simmered, Mrs Clinton's advisers complained about her exclusion from the vetting process for consideration as the vice-presidential nomination.

But she herself was reluctant to submit her financial records for scrutiny unless she was assured of being a serious candidate. The Obama camp suspect that Bill and Hillary Clinton deliberately encouraged reports that she was slighted.

Bill Clinton is also said to be angry that Mr Obama talked down his own successes in running a thriving US economy. The former president, who speaks tomorrow, is said to be furious that his assigned topic is to argue that Mr Obama will be a more effective commander-in-chief than his rival, a view Mr Clinton does not necessarily share.

But the week of speeches has been carefully choreographed to build momentum behind Mr Obama before his triumphant arrival in Denver on Thursday to accept the nomination.

Mr Clinton is expected to contrast his golden years in the White House with President George Bush's dismal record to show that Democrats are better at running the economy. An Obama backer described some in the Clinton camp as "bitter-enders" who cannot accept their loss of power.

But Mrs Clinton is widely expected to make a gracious call for unity when she takes to the podium later today to enthusiastically endorse her former rival. Her address will be accompanied by a glowing biopic and she is fully expected to appeal to the 18 million voters who backed her in the primary to vote for Mr Obama in November.

As a gesture, some of Mrs Clinton's delegates may be allowed to cast their votes for the former first lady. Terry McAuliffe, one of her chief advisers, told The Independent there would be "some kind of roll call, but not all the states".

In Denver yesterday, there was lots of raw emotion on display from the Clinton delegates.

Terri Holland, 60, a New Mexico delegate, gave vent to her feelings. "I'm expecting to vote for Hillary on Wednesday," she said, before adding, "then in November, I expect to vote for the Democratic Party nominee, because I am a good Democrat."

Asked if she finds it difficult even to say Mr Obama's name she does not deny it, but chuckles. However, she felt fairly sure that most Hillary supporters would support Mr Obama in the general election. "I really only know one person in New Mexico who has said he will not vote for Obama."

Another Clinton delegate, Frieda Wilcox, 69, from Oklahoma, said she was "disappointed that Obama didn't pick Hillary as his running mate".

She expects the Democrats to win in November, but believes that with Hillary on the ticket Mr Obama would have won with a much greater margin: "I have been a friend of Hillary's for a very long time – I joined her fan club four years ago. I will vote for Hillary here this week and then I will support Obama. I don't want to, but I will. I don't think he has been very respectful to Hillary."

Other Clinton supporters said they were disappointed because they may not now see a woman president in their lifetime. "I am sad because Hillary's campaign was so good for women everywhere," said Kooch Jacobus, 61, from New Mexico. "But I am a good Democrat and, of course, I will support whoever the Democrats nominate for anything."