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Opening Night

Michelle Obama did exactly what she needed to do on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, delivering her spotlight speech with warmth, emotion - and cold-hearted political calculation.

Aiming messages both at the delegates in the hall and to millions of Americans watching on TV, Ms. Obama subtly and gracefully used her star turn to perform crucial damage control and clean-up in an effort to reassure both groups in advance of her husband's presidential nomination later this week.

By the time she was finished, with the couples' two terrific young daughters joining her on the podium to wave hello to "daddy," who was beamed by satellite from Kansas City, she had addressed some important, lingering questions about Obama among delegates and among voters.

1) The Hillary question. Job one for the Obama campaign this week is to heal the wounds in the Democratic party that are still raw from his long and bitter battle against Hillary Clinton. Michelle Obama took a step towards doing that last night; speaking of her admiration and identification with people who work in public service, she won some of the biggest applause of the night by citing, "People like Hillary Clinton, who put those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling," referring to the votes Clinton won in the primaries. Obama also aimed directly at the large number of women and feminists who supported Clinton, whom polls have shown are still reluctant to back Obama. She recalled that this week marks both the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech and of women winning the right to vote; merging two of the most important constituencies of the Democratic party, she said, "I stand at the cross-current of that history," a terrific line well delivered.

2) Who is Barack Obama? With his unusual name, upbringing and rapid ascent in politics, Obama makes a convenient target for Republicans to portray as strange, different and, as one of Clinton's advisers famously wrote in a strategy memo, "not American." With the opportunity to speak directly to the nation, Michelle Obama did an excellent job of talking about the Obama she knows. She told her own family's story, from her blue-collar father's work ethic and struggle against chronic disease to the poignant tale of how her husband drove her and their first-born, Malia, home from the hospital very, very slowly, while constantly checking on the baby's well-being in the back seat. She spoke in human terms of herself as "a daughter...a sister...a mom...a wife" vouching for Obama's values and painting a portrait of how the couple made it through dint of hard work. "That's why I love this country," she said at one point, an important sound bite intended to counter GOP attack lines on the couple's patriotism and feelings about America.

3) Middle class values. At a time when Barack Obama needs to establish a connection and win over blue collar Democrats, Michelle Obama spoke eloquently of her husband's work as a political organizer in Chicago helping the unemployed and poor, and about the "values" the underpin his political agenda. Obama, she said, understands and works to help "people who work the day shift, kiss their kids goodbye, and go out to work the night shift." At another point, she spoke directly about what she and her husband believe in: "Your word is your bond...you work hard for what you want in life."

After Obama's speech, some among the cable TV pundit class judged it a bad night for the Democrats. Chris Wallace on Fox called it "a wasted night" for the party because they had failed to draw sharp contrasts with McCain and President Bush. James Carville, the Mr. Whupass of his party, complained on CNN that, "if the Democrats have a message, you couldn't tell it from tonight," arguing that the campaign needs to stop talking about Obama and start talking about what he will do for the middle class.

But before he can pass the two threshold tests for being president - First Family, Commander in Chief - Obama needs to clear away the image of him as too exotic to lead America, which was promulgated both by Clinton in the primaries and by McCain over the summer. Last night his wife helped him begin to do that.

The Lion in Summer

Ted Kennedy's lion in winter appearance last night will be one of the signature moments of this, or any other, Democratic convention.

John King, the best thing about CNN's political coverage, had the line of the night about Kennedy: "Rack that one up as an adrenaline moment," he said, moments after the ailing Senator from Massachussetts kick started what had been a desultory opening to the DNC's first night. "Whatever you think of the guy's politics, he's a lion."

Indeed, you'd have to be as heartless as the lion in "Wizard of Oz" (or work for Fox News) not to have been moved by Kennedy's courage and brief speech. Defying the advice of his doctors, who are treating him for brain cancer, Kennedy not only flew to Denver, but insisted on addressing the convention when he got there. After Caroline Kennedy's warm introduction, a short bio flick by the documentary film maker Ken Burns, and cutaway shots of Maria Shriver and hundreds of delegates weeping, the Senator's trademark social justice rhetoric punctuated the first part of the evening with powerful words and a powerful presence.

"Barack Obama knows that young Americans must never be committed to a mistake," Kennedy, praising Obama's judgment in opposing the Iraq war from the start, "but to a mission worthy of their bravery."

Kennedy's opening night appearance reminded everyone of the emotional "torch has been passed" endorsement that Ted and Caroline delivered to Obama back in January, a move that changed the direction of the Democratic race, by giving Obama momentum against Hillary Clinton and investing him with the Kennedy legacy, the party's most sought after totem.

As a political matter, it also achieved two goals for the campaign:

For the 4,000 plus delegates in the convention hall, it underscored the substantive importance of the 2008 election, sending a message that rear-guard squabbling and carping between Obama and Clinton should be put aside for the common values of the Democratic party.

For the far larger, and more important, audience of millions watching last night's proceedings on TV, it sent a powerful message about the high stakes in the battle between Obama and Republican John McCain - and of the substantial and crucial differences between them. For Kennedy, nothing captures those differences more than his career-long fight for "decent and quality health care as a fundamental right, and not as a privilege."

Echoing his speech to 1980 convention, when he lost his bid for the nomination to President Jimmy Carter, Kennedy concluded: "This November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans...the hope rises again, the dream lives on." It was a poignant moment, as Kennedy slightly changed the wording of that 1980 speech, when he declared that "the dream will never die."

Pass the Remote

Biden's Bite: Among his arsenal of political weapons, Joe Biden has one of the more sparkling, full-mouth smiles I've ever seen on a politician. About the 12th time CNN showed a close up of his beaming choppers, I began to wonder whether thousands of Americans were being blinded by tuning into convention coverage.

Say it ain't so, Juan: Juan Williams used to be a pretty good political commentator, but his performance on Bill O'Reilly's show last night was a disgrace. Williams sucked up to O'Reilly in the most sycophantic way. At one point, the two yukked it up about how Obama might make up for the large number of female Clinton Democrats who aren't backing him. O'Reilly chortled that "Joe Biden is going to bring out all the elderly ladies," to which Williams riposted, "All the cougars are going to come out." Ho, ho.

Leave it to Fox: While the nets, CNN and MSNBC were reporting the electrified reaction to Ted Kennedy's speech, Sean Hannity on Fox was interviewing some character named Cameron Strang, who edits a magazine for young Christians called "Relevant." Seems Strang was invited at one point to give a benediction at the DNC, but decided to back out when he found out it was on the opening night of the convention because he didn't want to seem partisan. Uhhh, okay. And why is this a story exactly? Hard to believe but back in the day Hannity had a show - not surprisingly short-lived - on KCSB, the kick-ass progressive radio station at UCSB.

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