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Democrats: Change in the Air

A Fractious Party Unites Behind Obama

As thousands of Democrats descend on Denver to kick off their quadrennial presidential nominating convention today, they come armed with something they haven’t had for years — momentum.

The feeling of opportunity is almost palpable among national Democrats. Shoved aside are the divisions and internecine fighting of the past eight years over what direction the party should take, the policies it should embrace and the tone it should strike. Instead, when the party faithful comes together for the largely celebratory, four-day convention, it will arrive with the hope that its newfound Congressional majorities could be expanded, and, for the first time in nearly a decade, the White House is in reach with the candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

“This is our most unified convention,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said “Going into it, there is a sense of seriousness and purpose at hand. Almost every Democrat, no matter who they supported in the primary initially, believes that a Bush-McCain presidency and four more years of those policies would be a disaster, and I’m not being hyperbolic, for the country.”

“There’s a much greater degree of confidence than four years ago,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. “People want to see change … there’s a lot of optimism and a lot of energy.”

The convention begins in earnest this afternoon when the opening gavel falls in the Pepsi Center and concludes Thursday night when Obama accepts the Democratic nomination for president before a crowd of more than 70,000 people at Invesco Field. Over the next four days, convention-goers will hear numerous speeches from the party’s most prominent players, engage in a few policy discussions, hit the fundraising circuit and revel in the formal kickoff of the 2008 general election campaign.

None of those activities are a break from the norm, but in the eyes of party leaders, they will have a far different vibe from recent years. Democrats say they believe the electorate has tired of the past eight years of President Bush’s presidency and a Congress dominated by the GOP until just two years ago. And, Democrats say, they also have had an awakening as a party that got too comfortable in the minority and didn’t do enough to fight a highly successful Republican campaign machine.

“They are always good on tactics,” said Schumer, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We’ve learned. The idea that we should be above the fray and not engaged in this dogfight — that’s over.”

Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), who will play host to delegates in town for the week, said he believed Democrats have the chance this week to answer a pressing question facing voters: “Had enough?”

Bringing it home, Salazar said, “People in Colorado and in the West are of the view that we need to have a new beginning, we need to turn the page, we need change. I think that’s the kind of candidacy Barack Obama brings to the presidency, and that’s the message we will see at the national convention.”

Salazar, among the growing number of Democratic moderates making up Congress, arrived in the Senate with Obama in 2004. At the time, the duo — one Hispanic and the other African-American — were dubbed part of a diverse Democratic dream team representing the party’s best chance for Senate gains that year.

Obama is making moderate voters a major target in his campaign and particularly this week with the host city being in an area of the country that’s increasingly fertile ground for Democrats. Obama’s plotted a wide-reaching strategy to campaign hard in Western states such as Montana and Alaska, which were typically ignored by Democratic presidential hopefuls.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), an outspoken moderate, said Obama’s approach is wise because unless Democrats embrace moderates and independents, they will fall short of achieving their goals next year. The challenges of withdrawing from Iraq, turning the economy around and reforming health care are too great and expectations for Democratic delivery are high, he said.

“I think people will unite behind him because he would be a president who will pursue consensus rather than conflict,” Nelson said. “He will listen and bring people together and get people working for all Americans again.”

Unlike recent years, Democrats say they are on the same page when it comes to the party’s priorities. While they are far from achieving unanimity on all aspects of the agenda, Democrats believe they are closer than they have been for many years and have put aside the infighting of the past. That unity will likely be critical next year if the party sweeps to power and no longer has Republicans to blame for failing to deliver.

“There’s no doubt this next Congress, quite possibly, will be the most difficult in which I will have served,” Hoyer said. “There are challenges, both international and domestic. This administration has put America in a very bad place.”

Hoyer added: “It’s going to be tough, but I think we can do it.”

“I think we know what we have to do on major issues,” Salazar said, adding that Democrats have a “game plan” on Iraq, energy and the economy, and a general path for health care. “I do think we can achieve results,” he said.

Both in policy and politics, the Democrats have learned hard lessons over the past eight years. In 2000, then-Vice President Al Gore was defeated by then-Gov. George W. Bush after a controversial recount in Florida led to a Supreme Court ruling that tipped the presidency to the GOP. In 2004, the Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), narrowly lost to incumbent President Bush.

This year offered continued political drama for Democrats, who battled fiercely for more than a year over who should serve as their standard-bearer. As votes were cast in the final primary elections in early June, Obama narrowly prevailed over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who was viewed as the certain nominee for much of the past two years.

Some of the hangover between Clinton and Obama’s rivalry remains, but even so, party leaders contend they have found the antidote that will allay any remaining bitterness. Clinton will be at the podium at the Pepsi Center on Tuesday night to deliver the night’s headline address, and two days later, her delegates will be able to show public support as her name is put in nomination alongside Obama’s. Later that night, Democrats are expected to come together behind one candidate when they gather to hear the first-term Illinois Senator accept the nomination.

While acknowledging that Clinton’s supporters have reason to mourn, having missed a chance to see the first female presidential nominee, Democrats say they have confidence voters have a greater appreciation for the duo’s similarities than they do their differences. They also believe that so long as Obama and Clinton put aside their rivalry in a public way this week, so too will their one-time primary supporters.

“The goal here is to unite the party and bring everyone together,” Nelson said. “If it’s necessary to make the millions of voters who supported Hillary Clinton feel those efforts were not in vain, that it was a groundbreaking campaign, well then it’s worth doing it.”

This week’s convention will mark the last major step for the Democrats as they head into the final leg of what’s been a two-year presidential campaign. Republicans will follow with their convention next week in Minneapolis-St. Paul. And by holding their event second, they are hoping to blunt any boost the Democrats are likely to gain from Denver.

But as Obama commands the national spotlight to make his most vocal case yet to persuade voters to select him over his rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Democrats believe they will close out the week with an unpenetrable advantage.

Asked what success would look like come Friday, Schumer said: “Democrats go out completely unified, but most importantly with the public understanding what we know about Barack Obama — that he understands their plight and has a concrete program and concrete set of ideas that will make their lives better. That’s the key.”

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