Image: Michelle Obama
John Moore  /  Getty Images
Michelle Obama speaks during the first session Monday night of the Democratic National Convention.
msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 8/25/2008 11:10:21 PM ET 2008-08-26T03:10:21

Michelle Obama mixed the personal and the political Monday night in painting a picture of her husband, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, as a working-class advocate for the American dream who “will finally bring the change that we need.”

In an address on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, Obama countered Republican attempts to portray her husband, whom the Democrats will nominate for president on Wednesday night, as an exotic elitist out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans.

Obama stressed her and the senator’s middle-class backgrounds, saying the couple “were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do, that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them and even if you don’t agree with them.”

She said her husband would rely on those precepts as he sought “to end the war in Iraq responsibly, to build an economy that lifts every family, to make health care available for every American and to make sure every child in this nation gets a world-class education all the way from preschool to college.”

“Barack will fight for people like them and ... Barack will finally bring the change that we need,” she said, promising that the senator would ask Americans “to believe in ourselves — to find the strength within ourselves to strive for the world as it should be.”

Barack Obama then appeared on a live video hookup from Missouri to tell his wife that “you were unbelievable” — interrupted several times by his younger daughter, Sasha, who kept breaking in to say, “Hi, Daddy!”

Kennedy dominates opening night
Obama’s address had been scheduled as the closing highlight of the evening, but some of her thunder was stolen by an emotional tribute to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the 76-year-old lion of the party, who electrified the convention when he took the podium after a day of speculation about whether he was healthy enough to speak amid his fight with brain cancer.

Kennedy, D-Mass., had arrived in Denver on Sunday night and underwent an examination at a local hospital. Rumors had swirled all day that he might try to address the convention against his doctors’ orders, but right up until the end of a tribute video introduced by his niece Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, it remained a mystery whether Kennedy would be able to take the platform.

Image: Ted Kennedy
Mark Wilson  /  Getty Images
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy speaks Monday at the Democratic National Convention.

When he did, he showed virtually no aftereffects of his ordeal. Waving to the crowd and repeatedly giving a thumbs-up to delegates, the senator gave a vigorous address backing Obama. Kennedy’s early endorsement of Obama was seen as a key turning point in the Democratic primary campaign.

Speaking in a strong, clear voice, Kennedy thanked Democrats for their outpouring of sympathy after he underwent brain surgery over the summer. Reveling in the crowd’s chant of “Teddy, Teddy,” Kennedy said, “For me, this is a season of hope.”

“This is the cause of my life,” Kennedy declared: “New hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American — North, South, East and West, young, old — will have decent health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege.

“Barack Obama will close the book on the old politics of race, gender and group against group and straight against gay,” Kennedy said, bringing the convention to its feet. “... The hope rises anew, and the dream lives on!”

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Democrats unload on McCain
The rest of the first night of the convention was devoted to a coordinated assault on Obama’s Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. It all added up to a balancing act for the Obama campaign, which was working to reintroduce Obama while turning the Republican campaign’s attacks back on McCain.

Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, Obama’s vice presidential running mate, arrived Monday in Denver promising to take the fight to McCain.

Biden greeted a crowd outside Boney’s Smokehouse in Writer’s Square, where a woman told him: “Go get ’em, Joseph.” Biden replied, “We’re going to give them the devil!”

On the convention floor, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., launched an attack that tied McCain to what she called “the reckless Bush deficits.”

Pelosi recited a list of issues during her convention address, from the economy to civil rights to the war in Iraq, each time leading the delegates in chanting, “Barack Obama is right, and John McCain is wrong.”

“Republicans say John McCain has the experience. We say John McCain has the experience of being wrong,” she said.

The attacks were capped by a Republican, former Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, a surprise addition to the lineup who denounced his party for what he said was its abandonment of principle on fiscal restraint, arms control and individual liberties.

“This is not a time for politics as usual or for run-of-the-mill politicians,” Leach, who endorsed Obama earlier this month, said in a swipe at McCain.

Appeals for unity
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean opened the convention at 5 p.m. ET, setting off a larger campaign to salve the wounds of the duel between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

As Obama campaigned Monday in Iowa, his representatives worked with Clinton’s camp on a deal to give her some votes in the roll call for the nomination Wednesday night but then to quickly end the process in a show of acclamation for Obama.

Clinton preached unity at a breakfast for New York Democrats.

As supporters waved “Hillary Made History” signs, she said: “Make no mistake. We are united. We are united for change.

“Of course, we are Democrats, so it may take a while,” she added. “We’re not the fall-in-line party. We are diverse [with] many voices, but make no mistake — we are united.”

Former President Jimmy Carter, the beneficiary of a split between supporters of Republicans Ronald Reagan and President Gerald Ford in the 1976 election, said it was likely that “a lot of supporters of Senator Clinton have not yet made up their minds.” But in an interview with NBC’s Ann Curry, he predicted that “after this convention, you’ll see a massive move by them to support Senator Obama.”

Carter, who said he had recently spoken with former President Bill Clinton, said he expected the Clintons to do everything they could to back the nominee.

“Bill and his wife will be completely committed to Obama,” he said. “I don’t have any doubt about that.”

Still, some hard feelings remained. Pelosi acknowledged that Democrats “had not yet achieved the complete reconciliation that we need.” But Pelosi, who is chairwoman of the convention, told NBC News that the Obama and Clinton forces would unite.

“It doesn’t mean party unanimity. We’ve never had that,” she said after she addressed the convention. But “we have come here to be unified, focus, clarified. We are confident of victory.”

Obama to play it cool
Obama will close the convention Thursday night when the action shifts to Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium, where he will give his speech accepting the nomination from the 50-yard line.

Speaking to reporters Monday in Moline, Ill., Obama said he planned to tone down his oratory.

“I’m not aiming for a lot of high rhetoric,” he said. “I’m much more concerned with communicating how I intend to help middle-class families live their lives.”

Acknowledging that his speeches had been a key to his rapid rise in politics, Obama said it was now important to prove that there was substance behind the style.

“People know that I can give the kind of speech that I gave four years ago” at the 2004 convention, he said. “That’s not the question on voters’ mind. I think they’re much more interested in what am I going to do to help them in their lives. And so, in that sense, this is going to be a more workmanlike speech.”

McCain wasn’t disappearing from the campaign trail entirely. He was using an appearance Monday on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and newspaper interviews to stay in touch with voters. And there was continued interest in his choice of a running mate.

Athena Jones, Mike Memoli and Domenico Montanaro of NBC News; Mark Schrager of NBC station KUSA in Denver; and Alex Johnson of msnbc.com contributed to this report.

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