Obama faces big challenges for his big speech

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DENVER — A triumphant Barack Obama will claim his piece of American history Thursday night, becoming the first African-American to win a major-party presidential nomination. As he celebrates that milestone, he must begin his more challenging courtship of the rest of America beyond the Democratic Party.

Obama will deliver his much-watched speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination before about 75,000 cheering fans at Invesco Field at Mile High stadium in Denver and to millions more watching on television.

Despite his history of rousing speeches, Obama has worked to downplay expectations. Earlier this week, he said that Thursday night's address will differ a lot from his breakthrough keynote speech at the Democratic convention in 2004.

"This speech is different. . . . I think they're much more interested in what am I going to do to help them in their lives, and so in that sense I think this is going to be a more workmanlike speech. I'm not aiming for a lot of high rhetoric," he said Monday.

Obama's chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod, said Wednesday, "He's going to lay out the case for change. He's going to set the stakes of this election, the risks of continuing down the road we're on, which is plainly what Senator McCain is offering."

The stakes are enormous, and Obama will have to strike several chords to emerge from the four-day convention with the kind of growing support he'll need in a close contest with rival John McCain.

First, he has to start fleshing out his soaring rhetoric and bumper-sticker slogan of change by saying specifically how he'd change people's lives for the better. Even some Obama supporters are starting to ask the question that 1984 presidential candidate Walter Mondale once asked of rival Gary Hart: Where's the beef?

Second, Obama has to make working-class voters feel more at ease with him, more eager to, as they say, have a beer with him. They may want a president who's smarter than they are or more capable, but not one who thinks he's better than they are.

Third, he has to make the broader country comfortable with the idea of a 46-year-old man with little experience, dark skin and, as he puts it, a funny-sounding name in the Oval Office.

"Obama keeps talking about change. But any change is a gamble," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa. "It means stepping into the unknown. And if the argument is being made by somebody who's not that well-known, there's even more apprehension about the unknown."

Indeed, Thursday night's speech will have almost a split-screen element: the adoring Democrats at Invesco Field at Mile High, and the unseen, skeptical voters watching at home.

Obama faces a country that's apparently ready to elect a Democrat.

In the battleground state of Florida, for example, a Quinnipiac University poll this week found voters saying that they want a Democrat in the White House by 44-39 percent. In Pennsylvania, the pro-Democrat margin was even greater, 50-32 percent.

Yet Obama trails McCain in Florida, and his lead in Pennsylvania is less than half the lead for an unnamed, generic Democrat.

"The American people want a Democratic president. They're just not sure they want this Democrat," said Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Polling Institute at Quinnipiac.

A key reason is that Obama looks very different to much of America, where his African-American heritage and partial upbringing in Indonesia are still far from the norm, even in a fast-changing society.

At the start of the decade, Democrats were confident that changing demographics — more minorities, better-educated voters — would lead inevitably to majority status for the party that traditionally wins their support.

Writers John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira laid out the case in the best-selling book "The Emerging Democratic Majority." Census figures confirm the trend in parts of the country: Minorities now are the majority in four states, California, New Mexico, Hawaii and Texas.

The Census Bureau forecasts that five more will become majority-minority states within 10 years: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maryland and Nevada.

But they aren't there yet.

And as Obama learned painfully when he lost primaries in some big battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, white working-class voters still can dominate elections. And they didn't seem to like him very much, particularly after he was quoted saying that bitter working-class voters clung to God and guns out of frustration over their economic status.

Not only are the vast majority of voters still white — on the order of 75 percent — a disproportionate number of swing voters are white, working-class Americans who didn't graduate from college. They're the kind of people who voted for Bill Clinton in the 1990s and George W. Bush in this decade.

"Three-quarters of the electorate is still going to be white," Brown said. "He's doing pretty well among them. But that only puts him neck and neck with McCain. He needs to do better."

(Margaret Talev contributed to this article from Denver.)


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