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First day's theme: Obama, the American

EDITOR'S NOTE — This story has been corrected since it was first posted. See a note below for a full explanation.

DENVER — In case you missed it, Sen. Barack Obama is an American, with an American story and a beautiful American family, much like yours.

The Democratic National Convention opened Monday with a powerful rebuttal to the persistent suggestion by many on the right — and some in the middle — that for all his apparent strengths, Obama is somehow less American than his Republican rival for the presidency, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and that his embrace of American values is somehow less complete.

In a glitzy prime-time show that emphasized family, American values and Obama's own hardscrabble roots, a slate of speakers who know him best explained that regardless of Obama's exotic heritage or his name, his story anchors him firmly in the American experience, and has helped prepare him to lead the nation in an era of precipitous change.

Viewers heard from the man who hired Obama as a community organizer 20 years ago. They heard from his brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, the basketball coach at Oregon State University. They heard from his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who described how she and Obama were taught "that with hard work, we could accomplish the extraordinary."

But the featured messenger of the night was Obama's wife, Michelle, who has become something of a celebrity — and a lightning rod — in her own right. Her own journey from the South Side of Chicago to the top of the corporate ladder embodies the American dream as well.

Although her late father developed multiple sclerosis in his 30s, he worked at the city water plant while his wife stayed at home, raising the kids in a tiny apartment. The couple sent both of their children to Ivy League schools.

After a five-minute video about the Obamas, including how they met (first date over ice cream) and their lives with their daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, Michelle Obama bounded on stage to warm applause. She said she could feel her late father, Fraser Robinson, looking down on her, "just as I've felt his presence in every grace-filled moment of my life." Then she began drawing parallels between her family and other American families, concerned first about their children.

"You know, what struck me when I first met Barack was that even though he had this funny name, even though he'd grown up all the way across the continent in Hawaii, his family was so much like mine," she said, with her mother, Marian Robinson, in the crowd.

"Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is bond and you do what you say you're going to do, that you treat people with dignity and respect."

By this point, many women in the crowd were in tears.

"Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children — and all children in this nation — to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them."

For many fans of Sen. Obama around the country, he is a compelling candidate because of his personal story, and because of the hard work and smarts it took to get where he is.

He was born in Hawaii to a white mom from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, who deserted his family when Barack was 2. His mother married an Indonesian man; they moved for several years to Jakarta before Obama returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents.

They and his mother raised him. He eventually earned a Harvard law degree and settled in Chicago as a community organizer.

It was an unusual route to the U.S. Senate. Now, at just 47, he is about to become the first African-American nominee of a major political party, only four years after making his national debut at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston.

Yet throughout his campaign, Obama has been dogged by chain e-mails and partisan publications painting him as a Muslim, rather than the Christian he is, intent on destroying the United States from within, that he was actually born abroad, rather than in Hawaii, that he eschews the Pledge of Allegiance and the American flag.

Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, said the convention offers a crucial opportunity for shaping the way voters see Obama in the final 60-day sprint to the Nov. 4 election. Monday night, party organizers made sure to pack the Pepsi Center with as many hand-held American flags as "Change We Can Believe In" placards.

"John McCain has been on the scene for a long time. He's more formed," Plouffe said before the speeches began. "Particularly these up-for-grabs voters, a lot of them who didn't participate in the primaries, a lot of them are very busy, they are checking in now, so learning about his values, his accomplishments, his ideas is very, very important."

Democrats feel good about their prospects this year. But to win the White House, they must sell Obama not only to the independent and swing voters who may decide the election in states like Florida and Ohio, but also to those Democrats who backed his chief rival for the nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, and who now view Obama with some suspicion.

Clinton and other leading Democrats will spend this week in Denver trying to convince her supporters that Obama shares the commitments that drove her campaign.

On Monday night, Democratic delegates also heard an emotional reminder of the ideals that bind them as a party from Sen. Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy, the Democratic scion from Massachusetts who is battling brain cancer. His appearance was expected, but his speech was a surprise.

"There is a new wave of change all around us …," Kennedy said. "And this November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans, so with Barack Obama for you and for me, our country will be committed to our cause. The nation will renew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on."

Times staff writers Adam C. Smith and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

CORRECTION: Barack Obama earned his law degree from Harvard. A different school was identified in earlier versions of this story.

First day's theme: Obama, the American 08/25/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 27, 2008 4:40pm]
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