DENVER — At times, during the bitter contest for the Democratic nomination, it seemed that Barack Obama's fiercest rival wasn't Hillary Clinton, but her husband. Again and again, the former president hammered Obama for lacking the qualifications to live in the White House, and more than once declined to call him ready even after his wife left the race.
That changed Wednesday night.
In a prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention punctuated by wild applause, and which overshadowed the headline address by Obama's new running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, Clinton drew parallels between Obama and himself that he had resisted before, and bestowed upon Obama his mantle as the candidate of hope.
"Clearly, the job of the next president is to rebuild the American dream and restore America's standing in the world," Clinton said. "Everything I learned in my eight years as president, and in the work I've done since in America and across the globe, has convinced me that Barack Obama is the man for this job."
Praising him as insightful and inspiring, Clinton said Obama has the intellect and strength to defend the nation, and the empathy and policies to help right the ailing American economy. He also took head-on the biggest questions about Obama's fitness to become president, criticisms that he himself leveled during the primary and that the Republicans are leveling now.
"Sixteen years ago … we prevailed in a campaign in which the Republicans said I was too young and too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief," Clinton said. "Sound familiar?"
Hoots rose from the crowd.
"It didn't work in 1992, because we were on the right side of history," he said. "And it won't work in 2008, because Barack Obama is on the right side of history."
Obama's surprise visit to the stage at the end of Biden's speech electrified the convention hall and finally brought the spotlight directly onto the man who's been talked about all week. Today the convention will move to nearby Invesco Field, where Obama is scheduled to accept the nomination before 75,000 people.
"I want everybody to now understand why I am so proud to have Joe Biden … to help me take on this battle," Obama said. "I think the convention's gone pretty well so far. What do you think?"
The crowd cheered.
Biden, 65, took the stage to accept the nomination for the vice presidency, then shared stories from his working-class upbringing in Scranton, Pa., and Wilmington, Del., and the way his parents instilled in him an appreciation of persistence, family and commitment to the American dream, themes that have coursed through the convention programs this week.
"My mother's creed is the American creed — no one is better than you. You are everyone's equal, and everyone is equal to you," Biden said, as the camera panned to his mother, Jean Biden, in the crowd at the Pepsi Center. "My parents taught us to live our faith and treasure our family. We learned the dignity of work, and we were told that anyone can make it if they try."
Biden also rose eagerly to the roll of the attack dog that the number two man typically plays in presidential politics, saying the Republican candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain, simply offers an extension of President Bush's administration.
"The choice in the election is clear. These times require more than a good soldier. They require a wise leader," he said. "A leader who can change — the change that everybody knows we need."
But it was Bill Clinton's speech that had Democrats in the convention hall sighing with relief. His 20-minute speech followed Obama's official nomination over Sen. Hillary Clinton, as the Democratic Party's nominee, and the night after Sen. Clinton delivered a stirring call for her supporters to rally around Obama and heal the raw feelings left over from the primary fight.
Obama and Clinton share similar backgrounds – both were raised by single mothers of modest means, both found their door to opportunity in the Ivy League, both are political and rhetorical prodigies. Yet during the primary campaign, they were frequently at odds.
More than once, African-Americans accused Clinton of trying to use race to marginalize Obama in the eyes of Democratic voters, at one point comparing his crushing primary victory in South Carolina to the quixotic presidential campaign of another African-American, Jesse Jackson, two decades ago.
Even after his wife conceded the nomination in June, Clinton seemed reluctant to embrace Obama. Top Obama aides insisted Wednesday they had no idea what Clinton was going to say, and the convention was buzzing over news that he wouldn't be attending Obama's historic acceptance speech at Invesco Field.
But many delegates at the convention grumbled that he had better show magnanimity toward Obama and malevolence toward McCain.
He didn't disappoint.
"He erased any doubt as to whether he thought Obama was qualified," said state Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, a leading black lawmaker. "What happened in the primary was politics, an aberration, and to me didn't reflect the Bill Clinton that I know. His message tonight cleared it all up."
Added Sen. Tony Hill of Jacksonville: "The torch has been passed. I think he had passion for his wife and maybe he said some things that were taken out of context, but tonight, the torch has been passed."
Times staff writers Alex Leary, Adam C. Smith and Bill Adair contributed to this report.