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Democrats Honor Kennedy, Highlight Obama’s ‘American’ Story

Democrats kicked off the first night of their national convention Monday by honoring the remaining symbol of the most prominent family in politics, then highlighting some uniquely American stories that they said are embodied by the man they will nominate for president Thursday night.

Michelle Obama, wife of presumptive nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), was the headliner of the evening and she used her speech to shine a spotlight on how both the family backgrounds of herself and her husband shaped their own values and beliefs.

The biggest applause of the night, however, came earlier in the evening when Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is being treated for brain cancer, took the stage following a video tribute and introduction by his niece, Caroline.

“I pledge to you that I will be there next January and on the floor of the United States Senate,” Kennedy said, before being drowned out by the cheers of convention goers who followed up with chants of, “Teddy, Teddy, Teddy.”

The special tribute to Kennedy kicked off the night, which was centered on the theme ‘One Nation.’

Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy, said that notable leaders rarely come along, but that every once in a while they emerge when the nation needs them.

“This is one of those times,” she said.

Sen. Kennedy backed Obama relatively early in the primary process and had been one of his strongest advocates, a role Caroline Kennedy said would continue. “When he’s president, he will have no stronger partner in the United States Senate,” she said of her ailing uncle.

Invoking the words of his brother, Kennedy predicted that with the 2008 elections a torch would be passed to a new generation of Americans.

“The work begins anew the hope rises again and the dream lives on,” Kennedy said to a standing ovation and cheers before walking offstage to “Still the One” by the band Orleans.

Later in the evening it was up to another of Obama’s Senate colleagues, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), to help highlight the family stories of both Obamas — as well as her own.

But of the major speakers, it was McCaskill — an early Obama backer and one of his closest friends in the Senate — who took on the role of attack dog. Wearing a blue suit that perfectly matched the background of the blue-and-white Obama signs, she was the only speaker to name presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), referring to him as part of an effort to continue President Bush’s policies.

“We cannot choose that path again,” McCaskill said. “That’s a risk the American people cannot afford to take.”

Continuing the family theme, Michelle Obama was introduced by her brother, Craig Robinson.

Robinson talked about how his “little sister” had encouraged him to go back to his first passion of teaching. Now the coach of the Oregon State University men’s basketball team, Robinson also took the opportunity while on a national stage to get in a plug: “Go Beavers!”

Michelle Obama later called her brother “my mentor, my protector and my lifelong friend.”

Michelle Obama’s speech was devoted to weaving her life story — as a daughter, sister, mother — and that of her husband into a narrative about achieving the American dream.

Greeted with a sea of waving rectangular blue campaign signs bearing her name, she was also the one speaker of the night to mention both Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), whom Obama defeated in the Democratic primaries, and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), her husband’s running mate.

“I stand here today at the crosscurrents of that history, knowing that my piece of the American dream is a blessing hard won by those who came before me,” she said. “People like Hillary Clinton, who put those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, so that our daughters and sons can dream a little bigger and aim a little higher. People like Joe Biden, who’s never forgotten where he came from and never stopped fighting for folks who work long hours and face long odds and need someone on their side again.”

Her two daughters joined her onstage after the speech, before Sen. Obama appeared via video from Missouri. Obama first said he was in St. Louis, then later said he was in Kansas City.

“How about Michelle Obama? Now you know why I asked her out so many times even though she said no. You want a persistent president,” Sen. Obama said to chuckles from the audience.

Meanwhile, also in the lineup of speakers Monday night was former Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), a longtime Republican who recently endorsed Obama.

“Jim is here today because he understands that red and blue are not nearly as important as red white and blue,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said in his introduction.

Leach, who was defeated for re-election in 2006, focused his remarks on the current lack of bipartisanship in Washington, D.C.

“In troubled times it was understood that country comes before party,” he said.

Leach had praise for past leaders of both parties — namely former Vice President Al Gore and former President George H. W. Bush — and said he was proud of his party’s history of accomplishments.

But he then took aim at the current Republican party, which he said has “broken with its conservative heritage” on most all issues.

“This is not a time for politics as usual or usual politicians,” he said.