Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama faces a challenge this week healing a party rift, confronting Republican rival John McCain more aggressively and fleshing out his rosy oratory with detailed policy.
Obama, 47, enters the Democratic party convention that will formally nominate him in a strong position, but he has yet to answer doubts among many Americans about where he would take the country if elected in November and whether he has the experience the job requires.
The man who would be America’s first black president faces many question marks as he prepares for his acceptance speech on Thursday to set the stage for what figures to be a tough campaign against Vietnam war hero McCain, who turns 72 next week.
Of intense interest among Democrats gathering for the carefully scripted convention at Denver’s professional basketball arena is to what extent his vanquished rival, Hillary Clinton, and her ex-president husband, Bill Clinton, will rally her legions of supporters behind Obama.
Resentment lingers among Clinton backers three months after Clinton ended her campaign, driven in part by evidence that the Obama camp never seriously considered her as a candidate to be Obama’s vice presidential running mate, a position Obama filled on Saturday with veteran Delaware Sen. Joe Biden.
Hillary Clinton will address the convention on Tuesday and Bill Clinton speaks on Wednesday.
TWO CONVENTION GOALS
Obama’s spokesman Bill Burton laid out two goals for the convention.
"We want to make sure people know exactly who Sen. Obama is and where he wants to take the country, and two, that voters know their choice in this election, between Barack Obama, who wants to fundamentally change the way business is done in Washington, and John McCain, who is just more of the same of what we have had over the course of the last eight years," he said.
Democratic strategist Doug Schoen, who worked in the Clinton White House, said Obama "needs to change the direction of his campaign" by tying McCain more closely to President George W. Bush, unpopular due to the Iraq war and sagging economy.
Schoen said Obama also needs to limit the uplifting rhetoric and outline sharper differences with McCain on tax policy, energy, housing and job creation.
"He’s got to be focused, simple and clear, rather than elegiac. This is not a great novel. This is a short, clear, focused discussion … Unless it is clear and real simple, he has failed," Schoen said.
Obama enters convention week neck and neck with McCain in public opinion polls and is looking for the traditional bounce in the polls coming out of Denver. The McCain campaign is hoping to blunt the attention on Obama by announcing McCain’s choice for his vice presidential running mate on Friday.
OPINION POLLS CLOSE
"Obama certainly hasn’t opened up any huge lead over John McCain in a year that should be an easy year for a Democratic candidate," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "I think the country still wants to know who Barack Obama is and where he wants to take the country in a more specific direction than he has given."
Some Democrats believe Obama needs to make the election a referendum on McCain.
"You can’t lose the ‘change’ mantra but you’ve got to continue to indict McCain," said Democratic strategist Jim Duffy. "The bottom line is: Do you want four more years? When they leave the convention they need to have fairly vetted that and answered that question."
The opening night on Monday at the convention is dedicated to highlighting Obama’s life story, his commitment to change, and those calling for a new direction in the country.
The keynote speaker will be Obama’s wife, Michelle.
Democratic strategist Liz Chadderdon said explaining Obama’s life story should help him with voters who still have questions about him.
The son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, Obama spent formative years in Hawaii and Indonesia, worked his way through college and began his political career as a community organizer in Chicago.
"The guy’s got a great story and people don’t know it," Chadderdon said.