DENVER — Forty five years to the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told America about his dream of racial equality, Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, pledging a new direction for a troubled nation while warning that his Republican opponent offers only small-minded, partisan solutions.
Talking Thursday night to more than 84,000 people in an open air football stadium, with millions more watching on TV, the first African-American nominee of a major party largely dispensed with the soaring rhetoric that fueled his extraordinary rise. Instead, Obama bluntly spoke of a defining moment for America, and cast Republican John McCain as a dinosaur who "doesn't get it."
"This moment — this election — is our chance to keep, in the 21st century, the American promise alive. Because next week, in Minnesota, the same party that brought you two terms of George Bush and Dick Cheney will ask this country for a third. And we are here because we love this country too much to let the next four years look just like the last eight. On Nov. 4, we must stand up and say: Eight is enough."
It was the most important speech of the Illinois senator's life, a chance to explain to voters now tuning in to the dead-heat presidential race who he is, what he intends to do and how, contrary to the elitist caricature, he understands middle class Americans.
"Tonight, more Americans are out of work and more are working harder for less. More of you have lost your homes and more are watching your home values plummet. More of you have cars you can't afford to drive, credit card bills you can't afford to pay and tuition that is beyond your reach," Obama said, before an Invesco Field filled with waving American flags.
"These challenges are not all of government's making. But the failure to respond is a direct result of a broken politics in Washington and the failed presidency of George W. Bush. America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this."
The acceptance speech capped the four-day convention where the party strove to put behind it tensions lingering from the marathon primary between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton and give America a convincing show of unity. The Clintons passed the baton to Obama earlier in the week.
On Thursday, the man George W. Bush barely beat eight years ago also took the stage. Al Gore, the former vice president, recounted how in 2000 many voters said there was little difference between the candidates.
"But here we all are in 2008, and I doubt anyone would argue now that election didn't matter. Take it from me, if it had ended differently, we would not be bogged down in Iraq — we would have pursued bin Laden until we captured him. We would not be facing a self-inflicted economic crisis — we would be fighting for middle income families," Gore said.
"Today, we face essentially the same choice we faced in 2000, though it may be even more obvious now, because John McCain, a man who has earned our respect on many levels, is now openly endorsing the policies of the Bush-Cheney White House and promising to actually continue them,'' Gore said. "The same policies all over again? Hey, I believe in recycling, but that's ridiculous."
A line more than 2 miles long snaked from downtown Denver toward Invesco Field, a spectacular human bottleneck that persisted even as Gore took the stage at 6:45 p.m. local time. But the groans and complaints were drowned out by the wild cheers of those who made it in. Virtually everyone was given a small American flag, a prop clearly intended to blunt questions about Obama's patriotism and family background.
No presidential nominee has given his acceptance speech in an open air stadium since John F. Kennedy in 1960, at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The campaign hoped it would underscore Obama's intent to open up the process well beyond political insiders and elites, but the move presented real risks.
Concerns about rain proved unfounded, but some Democrats also worried the giant crowd would feed the criticism from the McCain campaign that Obama is flush with adoring fans but light on substance. The campaign installed a columned stage resembling an ancient Greek temple to give a more conventional backdrop on TV, and that only prompted ridicule from Republicans.
On Thursday, though, the McCain campaign also released a TV ad recognizing the significance of Obama accepting the nomination on the 45th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
"Sen. Obama, this is truly a good day for America,'' McCain said in the ad. "Too often the achievements of our opponents go unnoticed. So I wanted to stop and say, congratulations. How perfect that your nomination would come on this historic day. Tomorrow, we'll be back at it. But tonight, Senator, job well done."
Most every Obama campaign event doubles as an organizing effort, and the Invesco Field appearance was no exception. The campaign asked people to send text messages to friends about Obama — bringing more than 30,000 electronic addresses back to the campaign — and organized speech-watching parties across the country, including 300 in Florida.
Polls show a widespread dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, but with the presidential race neck-and-neck, Obama needs to reach the roughly 15 percent of the electorate still unsure about the 47-year-old freshman senator.
Many say they want him to flesh out with specifics his vague calls for change, and Obama made an effort Thursday.
"I will eliminate capital gains taxes for the small businesses and the startups that will create the high-wage, high-tech jobs of tomorrow," he said. "I will cut taxes — cut taxes — for 95 percent of all working families. Because in an economy like this, the last thing we should do is raise taxes on the middle class."
Obama didn't mention his plan to raise taxes on upper income Americans to pay for programs, including expanded health care.
"And for the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as president: In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East."
Obama often laments the negative tone of politics today, but he sharply attacked McCain as a candidate who is stuck in the past and riding a false image as a maverick.
"The record's clear: John McCain has voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time," Obama said. "Sen. McCain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush has been right more than 90 percent of the time? I don't know about you, but I'm not ready to take a 10 percent chance on change."
Times staff writers Wes Allison and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 8938241.