DENVER — Democrats opened their 2008 national convention Monday with an emotional tribute to an ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy, who told delegates that "the torch will be passed again" to Sen. Barack Obama and a new generation of leaders.
"We are told that Barack Obama believes too much in an America of high principle and bold endeavor," the Massachusetts Democrat said. "But when John Kennedy thought of going to the moon, he didn't say it's too far to get there."
The handoff of the Kennedy legacy to Obama was the highlight of a night that also featured an address by Michelle Obama, wife of the Democratic presidential candidate, who told the crowd that she and her husband were "raised with so many of the same values.
"What struck me when I first met Barack was that even though he had this funny name, even though he'd grown up all the way across the continent in Hawaii, his family was so much like mine," said Obama, who was born eight weeks after John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
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Her message was that her roots, and those of her husband, were very much like those of many American voters.
It was a message that Kennedy drove home in an appearance that was not guaranteed since he's being treated for brain cancer. The hall was already a sea of bobbing blue "Kennedy" signs as Caroline Kennedy, President Kennedy's daughter, stepped forward to introduce her uncle — the last brother of that generation of Kennedys.
She talked about "Uncle Teddy," who she said makes terrific cookies, loves to sail and was there for her family in times of grief and joy. She said that if you as an American benefit from a higher minimum wage, expanded federal health care, and many other social services, then her uncle was your senator too.
And she made the crucial link between her father and the man who would inherit his legacy: "Leaders like them come along rarely," she said, "but once or twice in a lifetime they come along just when we need them the most. This is one of these times."
Five minutes of cheering followed, though the tears seemed to be saved for the video tribute to the veteran senator. People burst into applause in the darkened convention hall when Kennedy appeared in black-and-white photos with his slain brothers, John and Robert.
They heard Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the civil rights veteran and confidant of Robert Kennedy, describe how Ted "picked up where his two brothers left off."
Ordinary people offered tributes to how Kennedy would read to children at a school, or fight for better armor for the troops in Iraq.
There had been some suspense whether Kennedy, who rarely has appeared in public since his diagnosis, would speak. But then his wife, Vicki, appeared behind the podium curtain, and her husband walked out in a slow but steady gait.
His appearance recalled other Kennedy moments at past Democratic conventions: 1960, when John promised to lead a new generation, or 1968, when Ted recalled his slain brother Robert's quest to seek a better world. And it recalled 1980, when Ted Kennedy electrified the convention in a speech declaring that "the dream shall never die."
Monday night some of the familiar rhetorical flourishes were there — and so were the suggestions that this might be the last big stage.
A simple line like "It is so wonderful to be here" drew a chuckle from Kennedy. His statement that "for me this is a season of hope" seemed to freeze a row of delegates from Mississippi.
"Yes, we are all Americans," Kennedy said. "This is what we do. We reach the moon. We scale the heights. I know it. I've lived it, and we can do it again."
He pledged to be at his desk in the Senate — the same one his brother John used as a senator — for the inauguration in January.
"In November, the torch will be passed again to a newer generation of Americans," he said. "So with Barack Obama and for you and for me, our country will be committed to his cause. The work begins anew. The hope rises again, and the dream lives on."
Unlike the lengthy outpourings after Kennedy speeches past, the crowd did not go wild. They waved their signs and roared for about five minutes, and moved on to the next speaker.
Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., was not surprised by the restrained mood. Obama, he said, is unlike any other major presidential candidate, and many party members are still unsure whether he can win — or even be a worthy candidate.
Adding to the uncertainty is how delegates for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is slated to speak Tuesday night, will react to Obama.
On Thursday night, Obama will deliver his acceptance speech from Denver's Invesco Field at Mile High, 48 years since John Kennedy accepted the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
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