Can Obama regain lost momentum?

Democrats open their four-day convention Monday 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 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.

But the polls show a far tighter race for president. Republican John McCain is running about even with Obama in several crucial states, and the Republican has seemed especially strong in the past few weeks.

Democratic insiders believe that many Americans still feel they don’t 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 Democratic hierarchy, Baker said, must "get people to visualize Barack Obama as president. It’s something that, particularly, older Americans are having a real problem grappling with."

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.

Both Clintons have prime-time speaking slots here, on back-to-back nights, and they could help unify the party behind Obama with full-throated, unabashed appeals for him. But their high-profile appearances, plus Obama’s agreement to place Senator Clinton’s name into nomination, also could become a televised extravaganza that seems as much about the Clintons as about Obama.

Obama’s choice of Delaware Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate disappointed some hard-core Clinton fans, making it all the more important that the convention show enough deference to her and her backers, especially women, to heal any lingering wounds.

"The main thing conventions do is unite the party," said University of Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters, a top adviser to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns. "By giving the Clintons speaking roles, Obama is trying to bring in whatever constituency they have."

Even though some top Democrats worry that the Clintons’ knack for drama and the spotlight could diminish Obama at his moment of triumph, the decision to allow a roll call vote on Hillary Clinton’s nomination "is probably smart," said Bob Stevenson, a veteran Republican adviser in Washington. "This party went through a long, arduous nominating process," he said, "and it needs to be united, with Clinton supporters on board."

Aside from uniting the party and defining Obama in positive terms, the convention’s other big purpose is to "deliver a negative message about the opposition," said Steve Elmendorf, a lobbyist and longtime Democratic aide and strategist. Some Democrats feel John Kerry did not sufficiently do that at his 2004 convention, and they are pressing Obama to "turn up the heat on McCain," he said.

The first three nights’ schedule of speakers clearly outlines the convention’s strategy. Monday 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 Monday speaker will be his wife, Michelle, who also graduated from Harvard Law School after growing up in a blue-collar family. Other speakers will include her brother, Craig Robinson, and Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng.

Tuesday’s official theme is "Renewing America’s Promise," but the real goal will be to give Hillary Clinton her moment in the Colorado sun without ceding the entire day to her.

Before she makes her evening address, a series of strongly pro-Obama women will have trooped to the podium, reinforcing the message that many women supported him from the start. They include Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota on Monday, plus House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was officially neutral during the primary but barely hid her pro-Obama leanings. Tuesday’s speakers will include Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano.

Plenty of veteran Democratic officials will help portray McCain as an-of-touch politician who would continue President Bush’s policies on the economy and Iraq. They include fellow senators Bob Casey Jr., Pa., Evan Bayh, Ind., Ken Salazar, Colo., and Patrick Leahy, Vt.

Also speaking are five female senators who either backed Clinton at the beginning or stayed neutral during the primaries: Barbara Mikulski, Md., Barbara Boxer, Calif., Maria Cantwell, Wash., Mary Landrieu, La., and Blanche Lincoln, Ark.

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.

Look for lots of digs about McCain being unable to say how many houses he owns, or his joking remark that earning $5 million a year is a good definition of being rich. A key theme will be that McCain is out of touch with the middle class, said Matt Bennett, vice president of Third Way, which generally espouses centrist-Democratic views.

"That is the most potent frame on McCain," he said. "Voters are inclined to believe that" about a wealthy man who has been in Congress nearly three decades, he said.

Of course, the convention’s most crucial moment will be Obama’s Thursday night acceptance speech before 75,000 people in the Denver Broncos’ home stadium.

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’s 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.