A speech that hits hard while signaling idealism

analysis

Election 2008

August 29, 2008|By Paul West | Paul West,paul.west@baltsun.com

DENVER - Barack Obama took off the gloves last night.

Sometimes accused of being too high-minded and elitist, the Democratic presidential nominee used a rock-star stage in Mile High stadium to get down and dirty, striking back hard - and repeatedly at John McCain.

As might be expected, the Illinois senator used his acceptance speech to portray McCain as the face of President Bush's unpopular administration. But he did it with a touch of humor, after pointing out that McCain had voted with Bush more than 90 percent of the time.

"I don't know about you," Obama said, "but I'm not ready to take a 10 percent chance on change."

Shouting "Enough!," he questioned McCain's judgment, portrayed the Republican as "grasping at the ideas of the past" and lacking fresh ideas for the future.

Obama accused his opponent of being out of touch with the economic struggles of ordinary Americans. He said McCain, who celebrates his 72nd birthday today, advocates pro-business policies not because he "doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it."

But it was on national security -- McCain's greatest strength, and one of his own weakest points - that Obama hurled his most audacious challenge.

"If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament, and judgment, to serve as the next commander in chief, that's a debate I'm ready to have," Obama said.

He followed with a selective reading of McCain's and his own positions, lacing them with applause lines. He charged that the Arizona senator "stands alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war" and then tried to turn around one of McCain's signature lines.

"John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell - but he won't even go to the cave where he lives," he said. "If John McCain wants to follow George Bush with more tough talk and bad strategy, that is his choice - but it is not the change we need."

Introduced by a biopic that sought to humanize him, including a film clip of his wife, Michelle, recalling the time she met that guy with a funny name, Obama strode to the podium unannounced. A crowd of more than 70,000 gave a tumultuous roar and broke into chants of "Yes, We Can," the campaign's slogan.

Obama, whose patriotism has been called into question by some of his opponents, cast his life story as the embodiment of the American dream.

"We love this country too much to let the next four years look just like the last eight," he said.

Responding sharply to McCain's charge that he cares more about winning an election than a war, the Democrat called that an example of the old politics that needs changing.

"I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain," said Obama, promising that he would not accuse McCain of taking policy positions for political purposes. "I've got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first."

On one of the most extraordinary closing nights in the annals of party conventions, Obama also tried to connect his life, and his candidacy, to the struggles of everyday Americans.

A Harvard law school graduate who earned millions as an author, he spoke of the struggles of his mother, who once had to go on food stamps to feed him and his sister, and had to fight with insurance companies when she lay dying with cancer.

He spoke of the economic struggles of ordinary families in paying their credit card bills, filling their gas tanks and affording college tuition. And he brought the crowd to its feet with a call for equal pay for women.

But one of his most important audiences was watching at home: the millions of undecided voters who will decide they election. Obama appealed to them from a singular setting, a politics-in-the-round spectacle modeled on John F. Kennedy's acceptance speech to a Los Angeles Coliseum crowd in 1960. Feeding the aura of a stadium rock concert were performances by Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow, and hiphop artist Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas.

Skeptics, including Democratic strategists outside the Obama orbit, worried that the atmosphere would turn off many of the swing voters their nominee needs to reach: older whites, especially those over 65, and working-class whites from old industrial areas weary of strangers promising change.

How well Obama did in meeting his goal - moving swing voters his way by easing their doubts about whether he is ready for the job - will be measured in opinion surveys over the next week to 10 days.

Even before he took the microphone, there were signs that he is benefiting from a traditional convention popularity "bounce." He moved out to a six-point lead over John McCain in the latest Gallup daily tracking pollys.

The setting for his acceptance speech melded two strains of Obama's candidacy - conventional politics and rock-star pyrotechnics.

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