Democrats gathering here for their nominating convention are significantly more nervous about Sen. Barack Obama’s prospects this fall than they were a month ago, and are urging him to use the next four days to address weaknesses in his candidacy and lingering party divisions from the bitter primary fight.
Obama’s aides said they had learned from what they described as the mistake of the 2004 Democratic convention — when aides to Sen. John Kerry’s campaign sought to forbid convention speakers from going after President Bush — and would use these four days to draw sharp contrasts with Sen. John McCain, particularly on the economy and McCain’s opposition to abortion rights.
“The stakes of this election will be made very clear,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist. “We are going to define the choice.”
At the same time, acknowledging persistent voter unease with Obama, his aides said they would use speeches and presentations over the next four days, including having Al Gore introduce Obama for his acceptance speech Thursday night, to offer a fuller biography and a more detailed plan of what he would do as president.
They said they were looking to 1992 as a model, when Bill Clinton successfully used his convention to address persistent questions about his personal life and what he would do as president.
In interviews, Democrats arriving here said they remained confident that Obama would leave Denver at the end of the week in a strong position to beat McCain. But many Democrats made clear that a convention they had once anticipated would be a breezy celebration of Obama had turned into a more sober and consequential event.
This reflected a summer that they said demonstrated Obama’s vulnerabilities and McCain’s resilience, and the signs of lingering divisions between some supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama.
“Back in June and July, I truly thought he was going to blow McCain out of the water and carry 30 or 40 states,” said Donald Fowler, a former national Democratic chairman who supported Clinton in the primary. “What has happened is that Republicans — McCain specifically — have really twisted his great charisma, this electric personality, to discredit his ability, his experience, his capacity, his judgment. I fear they are about to do to him what they did to Gore.”
Discussing the days ahead, Fowler continued: “Obama has got to do some things that will shore up his ability to lead — not just to charm, but to lead. They’ve got to give credibility to his understanding of foreign policy, his ability to deal with tough people and tough questions, and his ability to be more explicit and convincing on his health care policies and energy policies.”
Doe Trippi, who ran the presidential campaign of one of Obama’s rivals, John Edwards of North Carolina, said: “He has still got to get to the meat-and-potato, blue-collar workers. This is a big opportunity for him.”
There are some things that may be beyond the control of the Obama campaign.