Democrats rally the faithful as convention begins

DENVER — Ailing and aging, Sen. Edward Kennedy issued a ringing summons to fellow Democrats to rally behind Sen. Barack Obama’s pioneering quest for the White House Monday night in a poignant opening to a party convention in search of unity for the fall campaign.

“Barack will finally bring the change we need,” seconded Obama’s wife, Michelle, casting her husband as a leader with classic American values.

She pledged he would end the war in Iraq, revise a sputtering economy and extend health care to all.

Democrats opened their four-day convention as polls underscored the closeness of the race with Republican Sen. John McCain. And there was no underestimating the challenges confronting Obama.

He faces lingering divisions from a fierce battle with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination, tough ads by McCain and his Republican allies, and a reminder that racism, too, could play a role.

Kennedy and Michelle Obama were the bookends of an evening that left the delegates cheering, one representing the party’s past, the other its present.

“The work begins anew, the hope rises again and the dream lives on,” Kennedy said in a strong voice, reprising the final line of a memorable 1980 speech that brought a different convention to its feet. The senator has been undergoing treatment for a malignant brain tumor.

He said the country can meet its challenges with Obama. “Yes we can, yes we will,” he said, echoing the presidential candidate’s own signature refrain.

Michelle Obama said it was time to “stop doubting and start dreaming.”

Her mission was to humanize her husband and convince skeptical voters to look past the Illinois senator’s unusual name and exotic background to envision him as the next president. Barack Obama has repeatedly faced questions about whether he’s a real American.

Michelle Obama didn’t explicitly address race, but allaying concerns among white voters was part of the strategy for the first black presidential nominee of a major party.

“Barack doesn’t care where you’re from, or what your background is, or what party — if any — you belong to. That’s not how he sees the world,” she said. “He knows that thread that connects us — our belief in America’s promise, our commitment to our children’s future — is strong enough to hold us together as one nation even when we disagree.”

She joked about his love of basketball and his overcautious driving when he drove their first daughter home from the hospital. She described his upbringing by a single mother and grandparents who “scrimped and saved so that he could have opportunities they never had themselves.”

Michelle Obama talked about tucking in their daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, at night.

“I think about how one day, they’ll have families of their own. And one day, they — and your sons and daughters — will tell their own children about what we did together in this election. They’ll tell them how this time, we listened to our hopes, instead of our fears. How this time, we decided to stop doubting and to start dreaming,” she said.

Obama delivers his acceptance speech Thursday at a football stadium, before a crowd likely to total 75,000 or more. Then he and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, his vice presidential running mate, depart for the fall campaign.

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