DENVER - The Associated Press
Democrats open their four-day convention today with political winds at their back, but with a nagging, all-important question before them.
Will Americans, no matter how disenchanted with the current president and his party, elect a black man with a foreign-sounding name and a relatively brief tenure on the national stage?
Party stalwarts have about 80 hours to make Obama's case to millions of voters, who traditionally tune in to the conventions more than any other political events except the fall debates. Convention planners in Denver have scripted virtually every minute, sound bite and camera angle to that end, knowing the Republicans will have their four-day shot a week later in Minnesota.
Barack Obama has displayed phenomenal political skills, rocketing from the Illinois state legislature to his party's presidential nomination in four years. On top of that, 2008 has all the signs of being a bountiful year for Democrats, with polls hinting at new House and Senate gains to add to those from 2006 when the party regained the majority in both houses of Congress.
Far tighter race:
But the polls show a far tighter race for president. Republican John McCain is running about even with Obama in several crucial states and nationally, and the Republican has seemed especially strong in the past few weeks.
Democratic insiders believe that many Americans still feel they do not really know Obama, whose name and background strike them as unfamiliar, even exotic.
The son of a black father from Kenya and white mother from Kansas, he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, and most in Hawaii. His legislative record is comparatively modest, helping opponents label him as a lightweight gifted with oratory skills and little else.
All this makes it essential for Obama and his allies to use the convention to cast him as a weighty, wise leader who relates to ordinary people and their problems, and who can craft common-sense solutions that Congress will embrace.
"This convention is probably more important than any recent convention in terms of introducing the nominee to the American people," said Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker. "In the past, the nominees have been fairly well known, or of the type that's not so rare as Barack Obama."
The two people who can help Obama the most - Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton - also present one of the convention's most intriguing, and potentially nettlesome, story lines. Many Democrats recall Bill Clinton's eight-year presidency with great affection. And Hillary Clinton pushed Obama to the limit in the primaries, winning huge numbers of white working-class voters he will need in November.
The first three nights' schedule of speakers clearly outlines the convention's strategy. Today is largely devoted to portraying Obama as part of the American dream: a man raised by a financially pressed single mother before winning scholarships to top universities and rejecting high-paying jobs to work in poor neighborhoods in Chicago.
The most important speaker will be his wife, Michelle, who also graduated from Harvard Law School after growing up in a working-class family. Other speakers will include her brother, Craig Robinson, a college basketball coach, and Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, a history teacher at a private high school in Hawaii.
Tomorrow's official theme is "Renewing America's Promise," but the real goal will be to give Hillary Clinton her moment in the Colorado spotlight without ceding the entire day to her.
Obama's newly minted running mate Joe Biden will be the clean-up speaker Wednesday. He has never been shy about attacking political opponents, even though McCain is a longtime Senate colleague. Biden's toughest task, however, may be to avoid being completely overshadowed by Bill Clinton's address earlier that evening.
Of course, the convention's most crucial moment will be Obama's Thursday night acceptance speech before 75,000 people in the home stadium of the Denver Broncos professional football team.
His speechmaking skills are well known. But he and his wife may need to tap every talent they have to regain Obama's pre-August momentum and to counter critics' mounting suggestions that he is an elitist and unable to relate to ordinary Americans.
"The burden is going to reside squarely on Barack Obama and Michelle Obama," said Baker, the Rutgers professor. "All the other pageantry is essentially endorsements by people who want to get him elected," and they probably will not sway undecided voters.
At least until the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, the Denver convention marks Obama's best chance to assure uncommitted voters that the "change" he promises will make their lives better. As for party loyalists, he hopes to show he is a tough, counter-punching Democrat who won't fall victim to Republicans' slashing attacks, as did five of the party's last seven nominees.
The stakes are mile-high in Denver.