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Democrats in Denver: A mile-high milestone

DENVER — I told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Saturday that I covered my first national political convention in 1968 in Chicago as a Washington correspondent for newspapers in St. Paul and Duluth as Democrats tore their party apart while nominating Hubert Humphrey amid violent protests, and joked that I hoped her party’s 2008 convention wouldn’t be as exciting.

She assured me that the Democratic convention that starts here today won’t be, and indeed, it’s not likely we’ll ever see another convention like the chaotic one that pitted Vice President Humphrey against the antiwar supporters of Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, and left Humphrey’s campaign in such disarray that he lost by a razor-thin margin to Richard Nixon.

But having covered 10 of the last eleven Democratic conventions — the only one I didn’t cover was the 1980 convention in New York when Vice President Walter Mondale was  renominated with President Jimmy Carter and I was working as Mondale’s press secretary — the 2008 Democratic convention is certain to provide plenty of excitement and controversy.

In fact, as Democrats gather here for their quadrennial meeting, there’s no doubt it’s going to be an historic one, just as the Republican convention that follows it in the Twin Cities will be, for a different reason. While the man the Republicans nominate will be the oldest person ever to run for president for the first time, the Democratic nominee will be the first black presidential candidate. At the same time, it will be the first time that a woman speaker of the House has helped choose her party’s presidential nominee, and promised to do her utmost to get him elected.

‘Night and day’ differences
Pelosi’s enthusiastic support for Sen. Barack Obama could turn out to be a critical factor in the upcoming election. As she made clear at a pre-convention luncheon sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, she’s going to do everything she can to heal the wounds from the bruising primary battle between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton that left many of Clinton’s women supporters unhappy with Obama.

“I believe that women will see that they have the most to gain by the election of Barack Obama and the most to lose by the election of John McCain,” Pelosi told journalists at the Brown Palace Hotel, her first stop after arriving in Denver from San Francisco. Pelosi, who had just watched on television as Obama introduced his vice presidential running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, in Springfield, Ill., said the differences between Obama and McCain are like “night and day” when it comes to issues such as health care, education and the war in Iraq.

Pelosi also made clear that she’s aware that hard feelings still exist between Hillary Clinton — and her husband, as well — and Obama, and that the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party need to bend over backwards this week to assuage the lingering resentment of Clinton’s disappointed supporters. “It’s hard to lose,” she said.

Pelosi no doubt had in mind the impact of the prime time speeches that Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton will give on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, respectively. The former president is his party’s most compelling speaker, even more so than Obama, who is a gifted orator, and he was less than complimentary to Obama while campaigning for his wife. As a result, Democrats are holding their breath while waiting to hear him speak the night before Obama addresses an expected crowd of 75,000 people at the stadium where the Denver Broncos play.

“Will he use this opportunity to bury the hatchet?” the Denver Post asked Sunday. “Or will he continue to fan media speculation about a rift between the Clintons and Obama? The ex-president is famous for wandering off-message and ad-libbing; it isn’t clear whether he or the Obama campaign will be able to keep that habit in check.”

Biden choice applauded
Obama’s choice of Biden has been generally applauded by fellow Democrats here and by many political observers as well. Joe Klein, the Newsweek columnist, told me he thinks it is a great choice because Biden can challenge McCain on foreign policy and national security issues, he has strong support from organized labor that can help Obama in key states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, and  will give Obama what he needs in an increasingly negative campaign, “an attack dog.”

(Gregory Craig, a Washington attorney who in his 60s and is a top adviser to Obama, put it differently on Sunday at a luncheon tribute to late NBC journalist Tim Russert. When I asked him about Obama’s selection of the 65-year-old Biden as his running mate, he joked, “Biden is the last chance for our generation.”)

But even if both Clintons come through for him, Obama will have to overcome  at least two other obstacles, one of which was identified by Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, who told me that Obama “has lost some of his edge” in recent weeks.

Dingell, who sponsored the legislation that created Medicare and who is about to become the longest serving member of Congress, said Obama must convince voters that his promise of change is more than rhetoric by offering specific ideas on issues such as health care, gasoline prices and the loss of jobs. He also expressed concern that the racial issue could be a potent factor in the election.

As for the other obstacle, I raised it with Pelosi. I said many so-called experts say that Obama’s biggest problem is that, having been in the Senate only four years, about half of which he was on the campaign trail, he hasn’t stood on the national stage long enough for people to know who he is and what he stands for. Do you also see that as his biggest problem, I asked?

She didn’t exactly answer me, saying: “We have to convey to [voters], not just at this convention but in the campaign in their states and their communities, what is at stake. If people think it’s OK to vote for John McCain, then we haven’t been clear enough in communicating the message of what is at stake here.” 

That’s clearly the challenge that Obama faces this week in Denver, and that’s why this convention may turn out to be the most exciting one the Democrats have held since 1968.

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