Down-to-earth Obama speech will trade rhetoric for details

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 27, 2008 - 11:15 PM

DENVER - And now, it's Barack Obama's turn.

Having become the Democratic nominee for president largely on the strength of his gifts as an orator, tonight he must give the speech of his life.

Known for his stirring rhetorical music, Obama's challenge is to combine it with straightforward lyrics that explain to working-class swing voters how he will address their problems and improve their lives.

Beamed from a 76,000-seat outdoor stadium, the accompanying picture will be that of the first black in a major party accepting his party's standard and presenting himself to the nation.

"This speech will give him the opportunity to reach the biggest audience he's ever had," said Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton.

It is an image consciously chosen for the history books: Coming on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, Obama's address will also conjure memories of John F. Kennedy at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1960, the last time a presidential acceptance speech was delivered outside of a convention hall.

But beyond the stagecraft, campaign aides say this is the night Obama's soaring rhetoric must come down to earth. Capping a four-day convention devoted in large part to defining the candidate personally to voters, Obama speech will seek to fill in the details of an economic argument that is expected to be central to his campaign.

"The hope is that after watching this speech people will know a little bit more about who Barack Obama is, where he comes from and where he wants to take this country," Burton said.

Tamping down expectations

Democratic analysts also say that Obama must use this speech to blunt Republican attacks alternately mocking him as a rock star or a messianic celebrity, in either case casting him as a figure who is more about style than substance.

Republicans are betting that Obama's verbal virtuosity is wearing thin as the race gets tighter. "He has great soaring rhetoric, but as the substance has come out, his numbers have started coming down," said Robert Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

In a signal that Obama intends to define himself more substantively in this speech, his campaign has tried to tamp down expectations. "The media is setting lofty expectations, but the reality is that Obama has some hard work to do in explaining what he wants to accomplish," Burton said.

Obama has said tonight's acceptance speech will be more "workmanlike" than the inspirational "Audacity of Hope" address he gave at the 2004 Democratic convention and which propelled him to national prominence.

"I don't think you can duplicate that kind of moment," Obama told reporters Monday as he set off for a three-day campaign journey to Denver.

But no matter how downbeat Obama gets about the economic anxieties of the working and middle classes, it will be hard to avoid the exalted sense of generational change that is implicit in his campaign.

At 47, and with only four years of national political exposure as a U.S. senator from Illinois, Obama must also confront questions about experience, the central subtext of Republican attacks on his readiness to govern.

'Age matters'

The answer in tonight's speech lies at least in part in the inevitable comparisons to JFK and his "New Frontier" speech at the L.A. Coliseum. The resemblance was put forward in this week's convention by Kennedy speech writer Ted Sorenson. "Kennedy at 43 proved that age matters in the White House," Sorenson said. "His energy, appeal to other young world leaders, calm under pressure and openness to new thinking well served our nation."

Some longtime party activists already see a reprise of Kennedy's acceptance speech in Obama's decision to move his convention over to Denver's Invesco Field at Mile High, where thousands of the Democratic nominee's newly minted fans will be able to join in.

"It set the place on fire," said Jane Freeman, who was at the 1960 convention with her late husband, Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman. "It was much like Barack Obama has done in many of his speeches and what I think he's going to do in Denver."

Former Vice President Walter Mondale also sees a parallel in what's at stake for Obama tonight. "Obama, even though he's accomplished so much and arrived at this extraordinary position, still has people out there who are not persuaded.

"And how he handles that in this speech, just as it was for Kennedy, is so important."

Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753

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