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Dems In Denver: Opening Night Review

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Twenty-two million Americans tuned in to the Democratic Convention last night, four million more than party attracted to the opening days in Boston four years ago. The opening day was filled with highs, lows, and unusual choices, but the night should ultimately be a successful one for Democrats.

The surprise appearance from Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, in the midst of a fight with cancer, sent a clear jolt of energy through Denver’s Pepsi Center. One of his party’s most indelible icons, Kennedy had jumped wholeheartedly behind Barack Obama in February, passing the torch to the young Illinois senator. “It’s time for a new generation of leadership,” he said then. His appearance Monday was in question just hours before he took the stage and Kennedy acknowledged those doubts in his opening. “Nothing is going to keep me away from this special gathering tonight.”

While Kennedy’s speech was the highlight of the night for many, a speech from former Iowa Republican Congressman Jim Leach was one of the low points. Leach, who represented Southeast Iowa for 30 years before a surprising defeat in 2006, failed to deliver red meat to the crowd as Zell Miller did for Republicans four years ago and as Joe Lieberman will likely do next week. Instead, the mild-mannered (and, quite frankly, boring) Leach talked of bipartisanship and praised the Democratic nominee. The speech fit nicely into Obama’s call for unity, but it seems like a missed opportunity. Was Leach was the best Obamacon they could find?

There were a few other curious decisions as well. Jimmy Carter made only a brief appearance after a video tribute was shown in the convention hall. It was a surprisingly small part for an former president to play. Carter insisted today that the decision not to speak before the delegates was his decision, but I have to wonder if the Obama campaign would have welcomed him, having already drawn negative comparisons from his Republican rival. Carter famously refused vetting before his 2004 convention speech, one of the few to explicitly go after President Bush. Since, he has also drawn criticism for a number of statements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Still, Carter’s ex-presidency has been filled with humanitarian accomplishments and is a model for those who followed him in the Oval Office. His brief role last night is simply curious.

The prime time spotlight (and the attention of the broadcast networks) belonged to Michelle Obama and she made the most of it. Owing to her “proud of America” comments in February, the would-be First Lady is a controversial figure to many. Introduced by her brother Craig Robinson, who showed an unmistakable family resemblance, Michelle Obama’s speech was as much a reintroduction of her as it was an introduction to her husband. Twenty minutes later, she had hit one out of the park. She talked of her own middle class upbringing, her relationship with Barack, and her children, exemplifying her own American story. Her goal was to connect with the hopes and struggles of the average voter and with visible emotion she did just that. Daughters Malia and Sasha joined her on the stage as their dad spoke briefly to the convention from Kansas City, Missouri, to close out the night. All in all, it was a powerful appearance and one that could only help her husband’s campaign.

Not everyone was happy with the evening’s events, however. Former Clinton strategist James Carville suggested his party had wasted their first night in Denver. “You haven’t heard about Iraq or John McCain or George W. Bush–I haven’t heard any of this. We are a country that is in a borderline recession, we are an 80 percent wrong-track country. Health care, energy–I haven’t heard anything about gas prices,” Carville said on CNN, calling for his party to become more aggressive. In 2004, John Kerry barred virtually any criticism of the Bush Administration–a decision he probably came to regret. “I guarantee on the first night of the Republican Convention, you’re going to hear talk about Barack Obama, commander-in-chief, tax cuts, et cetera, et cetera.”

While Carville is correct that the Democrats need to put the focus on the Republicans, Monday night was not the right venue for such attacks. Bush-bashing will certainly help unite a fractured party, but it would have been out of place coming from the candidate’s wife. The Democrats will almost certainly use Tuesday and Wednesday to lay out their message against John McCain (Thursday will be about Obama’s vision) and the effectiveness of those attacks could set the tone for the campaign’s final seventy days. It seems the weight of that task will fall largely to Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden tonight and tomorrow, as if those two needed any more pressure.

Cross-posted at Political Realm.