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In an opening night that blended the traditions of the pep rally and the camp meeting, the Democratic National Convention got under way in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday with a program whose speakers signaled clearly that incumbent President Barack Obama has no intention of waging a defensive campaign against his Republican rival, Mitt Romney.
The first night of the Democrats’ quadrennial gathering contrasted sharply with the tone of the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., last week, which was overshadowed by bad weather, organizational glitches — like the Clint Eastwood spectacle — and a generally negative tone that ran through most of the speeches. As the television cameras panned the Charlotte hall, moreover, it was hard not to be struck by the difference between the two conventions — one overwhelmingly older and white, the other as diverse as the nation has become.
The entire day’s proceedings built to a rapturously received address by First Lady Michelle Obama, who like the other speakers spared no opportunity to draw comparisons between the president and Romney, though she never mentioned the former Massachusetts governor by name. Her husband, she told the delegates, believes that what matters “is not the money you make, but the difference you make.”
Aides said the First Lady was the principal author of the speech. (The president, by the way, watched the speech from the White House, where he’d helped see their oldest daughter off to her first day of high school.)
Michelle Obama was proceeded to the podium by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a rising Democratic star and the first Latino ever to deliver the keynote address to a national political convention. His text was studded with the kind of red meat lines that had brought the delegates out of their seats throughout the day.
“We know that in our free market economy some will prosper more than others,” Castro said. “What we don’t accept is the idea that some folks won’t even get a chance …”
“Twenty years ago, Joaquin (his identical twin brother, now a congressional candidate) and I left home for college and then for law school. In those classrooms, we met some of the brightest folks in the world,” Castro said. “But at the end of our days there, I couldn’t help but to think back to my classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio. They had the same talent, the same brains, the same dreams as the folks we sat with at Stanford and Harvard. I realized the difference wasn’t one of intelligence or drive. The difference was opportunity.”
Newark Mayor Cory Booker got the proceedings off to a rousing start as the lead-off speaker in a program obviously geared to rallying the party’s base. “Paying more taxes is patriotic,” he told the delegates in a slap to both the Republican majority in the house and Romney, who has declined to release most of his tax returns.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a close Obama friend, spoke pointedly of the fiscal and jobs mess he inherited from Romney when he took office. Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a popular figure in a key swing state, quipped that if Romney were “Santa, he’d fire the reindeer and outsource the elves.”
A video tribute to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy not only paid tribute to his extraordinary record as the U.S. Senate’s “liberal lion,” but also highlighted an extended excerpt from a televised debate with Romney, who once tried to unseat Kennedy. The comparison was, to say the least, unflattering. By focusing as well on Kennedy’s key endorsement of Obama in 2012 and the fact that he rose from his death bed to nominate the president in Denver. Many delegates were moved to tears by the presentation.
Commentators, however, almost unanimously agreed that the First Lady’s speech was a political home run and the first day’s highlight.
Michelle Obama put her family’s own struggles to live the American Dream in a historical context.
She told the crowd: “If farmers and blacksmiths could win independence from an empire … if immigrants could leave behind everything they knew for a better life on our shores … if women could be dragged to jail for seeking the vote … if a generation could defeat a depression, and define greatness for all time …
“If a young preacher could lift us to the mountaintop with his righteous dream … and if proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love … then surely, surely we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American Dream.”
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