By JEFF ZELENY and JIM RUTENBERG
© 2008 New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON – One of the first images that prime-time viewers will see of the Democratic National Convention next week is that of Michelle Obama, who will begin the four-day introduction of her husband, and her family, on her terms.
Like everything else at the orchestrated gala, that is by design.
Democrats face a number of imperatives at their convention, none trickier than making more voters comfortable with the prospect of putting a candidate with a most unusual background – the son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother, who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia – and his family in the White House. No one, his advisers believe, makes the case better for Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois than his wife, who will expand her profile by delivering one of the marquee speeches carried by television networks.
Through four nights there will be testimonials from family members like Obama’s wife and his sister who will tell his “very American story,” in the words of one adviser, and from party luminaries like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (by videotape), and former President Bill Clinton (live) who will give Obama, the presumptive presidential nominee, the imprimatur of the party establishment.
There will be appearances by lesser known “Americans from all walks of life, from across the country” speaking about their support for Obama. Combined with a film featuring the candidate in all-American scenes by Davis Guggenheim – the director of “An Inconvenient Truth” whose father produced a similar biographical film for Robert F. Kennedy – aides to Obama are using the convention to tackle what members of both parties see as his greatest vulnerability with undecided voters: his “otherness.”
The introduction of a candidate is a task facing every presidential nominee, but one that carries unique challenges for Obama because of his race and questions about his patriotism, values and faith that Republicans have already vigorously sought to raise and exploit.
Obama comes into the convention – effectively a four-night miniseries before an audience of potentially 20 million people or more – with many of the same objectives any Democrat would have in an age of global terrorism and economic hardship: the need to make voters see him as a potential commander-in-chief and a responsible steward of the economy.
His aides said in interviews that perhaps the most important goal of the entire program is to define the election on the Obama campaign’s terms – “change” versus “more of the same” – from here until Election Day, with the second night of the convention being heavily devoted to contrasts between Obama and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee.
“The goal of the party convention is that people leave with a clear idea of what the choices are between the two candidates and two political parties,” said Anita Dunn, a senior strategist for Obama.
But central to that choice are the candidates’ backgrounds. Obama’s life story, combined with his race and foreign-sounding name, adds challenges no presidential nominee from a major party has quite faced before.
“I’m asking a lot of the American people, and I know that,” Obama said in an interview last month, acknowledging that his burden to win over voters is greater because he is black. “My biography is not typical of a modern American president.”
Dunn said a core goal of the opening night program will be to stress “his American journey to get to this place,” emphasizing that “from his background, he has a deep understanding of what American families face.”
With Republicans pressing questions about his religious background, party planners will inaugurate the convention with an “interfaith gathering” of clergy. With continued e-mail attacks seeking to make hay out of Obama’s biography, the convention will include regular references to “shared values” with a potential first family that will look different from any that has come before it.
People familiar with the convention planning say those references will be front and center, beginning with the opening speech by Michelle Obama, in an effort to capitalize on what one strategist called Obama’s “prototypical nuclear family.”
“Opening up, it says, ‘We will be your first family, and this is what we represent,”’ said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., the co-chairman of Obama’s campaign in that state. “Basically what she is doing is saying, ‘We are the American story. Americans say get an education, give every single thing you do your best – we’ve done that, and now we’re ready to be a part of fulfilling Martin Luther King’s dream.”'
Campaign aides and outside advisers, however, have grappled with how far convention speakers, including the candidate himself, should go in explicitly addressing race and the historic nature of his candidacy, particularly as Obama accepts the nomination on the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream,” speech.
They are seeking some intimacy amid the grandiosity of Obama’s acceptance speech in the Invesco Field stadium before an audience of more than 70,000, the sort of cheering throng McCain’s aides have sought to use against Obama by portraying him as presiding over a cult of personality.
When he delivers his speech on the last night of the convention, Obama will not be addressing the crowd from a lone lectern at the edge of the field; he will be standing at the 50-yard-line, surrounded by a diverse set of people he has met throughout the campaign, whose presence is intended to signal to viewers at home that people like them are OK with Obama. Ten people selected by the campaign from all corners of the country will meet backstage with Obama and be shown to the television audience, also intended to convey their comfort level with the senator.
By then, the convention program will have already well established his maternal grandfather’s roots in Kansas and, likely, his service in World War II. The film by Guggenheim is expected to be steeped in Americana; parts of it were filmed while Obama was campaigning in the Rockwellian town of Butte, Mont.
Coming immediately after Obama announces his vice-presidential nominee, the convention, which opens in Denver next Monday, will give Obama one of his biggest stages and television audiences of the year. (McCain has indicated his intention to run television advertisements during the coverage, and McCain is expected to appear on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on NBC Monday night. )
“There are two overriding strategic imperatives for the convention: One is to make people comfortable with Barack Obama,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who served as a top strategist for Sen. John Kerry’s presidential race in 2004. “The other is to define the race clearly and define Barack Obama as change and McCain as a continuation of Bush’s policies at home and abroad.”
Dunn, the strategist for Obama, said that would be accomplished by stressing the course of the country “over the last eight years, the gridlock, and what that has meant for American families,” and the specifics of where Obama “wants to lead to the country.”
But, aides say, another important task is uniting the party after a bruising primary between Obama, the potential first African-American nominee, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the potential first female nominee. Featured female speakers at the convention include Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
None of this is to leave out Obama’s solid base of enthusiastic supporters. Advisers to Obama said the gathering is built around specific tasks aimed at capitalizing on their excitement.
For instance, when people arrive at the stadium in the hours leading up to Obama’s acceptance speech, they will be urged to call or send text messages to their friends and neighbors back home, turning the football stadium into a giant phone bank.
“We always look for opportunities to put our people to work and not just have them sit idle and listen to speeches,” said Steve Hildebrand, the deputy campaign manager.© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.