An Indiana railroader, an Iowa mother and a Michigan truck driver are getting a moment at the Democratic convention to help portray Barack Obama as the people's champion and counter GOP characterizations of him as an out-of-touch celebrity.
The idea is for these "real people," as the campaign calls them, to share personal stories about why they are supporting the Democratic presidential candidate and how they think he will help folks like them and the more than 20 million expected to be watching the convention at home.
Their prime-time speeches, combined with the convention's move to the much larger, 75,000-seat Invesco Field at Mile High football stadium in Denver for Obama's acceptance speech, are designed to portray his campaign as a vast movement for change bringing in Americans from all walks of life.
The four-day convention starts Monday.
"This convention in Denver is one is which people well known and people not as well known will come together across party lines, across geographic divides, because they believe in change," said Obama spokeswoman Anita Dunn.
She said they will try to contrast the gathering with a GOP convention, to be held the following week, that will be limited to party insiders.
One risk of moving to Invesco Field is that images of a stadium full of cheering supporters could fuel GOP attacks on Obama as the world's biggest celebrity and someone not serious about leading the country. The speeches by more than 20 people can counter that perception by helping Obama appear concerned with their everyday struggles.
"His message all along is that the ideas have to come from the people," said Candi Schmieder of Marengo, Iowa, a scheduled speaker who said she was turned off by presidential politics until this year because of all "the game playing."
Her speech on opening night, along with Obama's wife, Michelle, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will be before about 20,000 people at the Pepsi Center, and the millions watching at home.
"My voice shakes when I speak in front of 50 people at work at a meeting," said Schmieder, a city council member who turned down the campaign's offer to fly her to Denver because she wanted to drive in with her 11-year-old daughter.
The convention marks the beginning of the fall campaign, when many voters start to pay attention and will tune in to learn more about Obama. Organizers want voters to see someone they can envision as president, looking out for their concerns.
Obama has an extra challenge since he is expected to become the first black nominee of a major party, the subject of racism and smear campaigns questioning his background and patriotism. A goal of the convention is to describe his American story, his family roots and his understanding of real-people challenges.
The real people can talk about economic struggles from a personal perspective and why they see Obama as their champion, drawing a contrast with GOP candidate John McCain. The Obama campaign portrays McCain as promising more of the same in Washington.
Mike Fisher, an Amtrak machinist from Beach Grove, Ind., will talk about Obama's visit to his house for a lunch of Subway sandwiches.
"When I saw that motorcade come down the cul-de-sac, I couldn't speak, I couldn't swallow. Within a couple minutes, he put us at so much ease," Fisher said. "I'm just a poor railroader. I've got a small house, and a family I'm trying to raise. Barack and Michelle can relate to that because of their upbringing."
He jokes that his family is the "whole ball of wax" when it comes to Obama's campaign platform — he worries about job security, with Amtrak facing tough financial times; two of his children are struggling to pay college loans; his son has a new baby and no health insurance; and his son-in-law is in the National Guard facing possible deployment to Iraq.
Other speakers were chosen because of their circumstances, and their residency in targeted battleground states for the fall campaign.
- Pamella Cash-Roper and her husband, of Pittsboro, N.C., are unemployed due to health problems and can't afford gas to leave the house much.
- Xiomara Rodriguez, of Reno, Nev., served in the U.S. Coast Guard and is concerned about veterans affairs.
- Beth Robinson, of Chesapeake, Va., has multiple sclerosis and, as the wife of a Marine who has served repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is concerned about the housing market's decline on their future relocations and being a single parent when her husband is deployed.
- Roy Gross, a truck driver from Taylor, Mich., is a single father to a college-age daughter.
During the weekend, the campaign formally invited these people to the convention, providing airfare, lodging and great seats to watch Obama accept the nomination from a circular stage on the 50-yard line at Invesco Field. The real people and delegates attending their first convention will be among the roughly 300 people sitting directly around the stage.
Professional speechwriters are helping prepare their remarks, timed to about three minutes each. And just like any senator or other VIP speaker, an assigned staff member will oversee their schedules and logistical movements, including media interviews, speech coaching and on-stage rehearsals.
Real people also will be featured at an event Tuesday alongside Michelle Obama and the nation's female Democratic governors to talk about the economic problems facing women.
Besides "real people," Obama's campaign and the convention committee on Tuesday announced more names who will speak at the convention, including former President Carter; Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 presidential nominee; various Democratic senators and governors, and union leaders.