The party is raging in the Mile High City. All of the Democratic luminaries are there. But the guest of honor is in ... Iowa?
While it's nothing new for a presidential nominee to campaign across the country and arrive at his party's convention late, Obama's waltz into Denver is particularly slow and low-key. He's holding just one event a day, and those are mostly small town-hall meetings and picnics. Even for the reporters covering Obama the days have been relatively mellow: working from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. is unheard of on the campaign trail.
"How many events do you think I should be working?" Obama says with a laugh when I ask him about the lackadaisical pace. Comparatively, I say, Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 kept much brisker schedules; Kerry, who had named his running mate, John Edwards, weeks before the convention, spent the last week of the primaries hustling through a bus tour from Norfolk, Va., to Philadelphia and on to New York City, while Gore barnstormed across battleground states, doing a "handoff" in Michigan to the Clintons, who preceded him to the convention.
"Well, you know, we had a long primary season, which means that a lot of stuff was backed up," Obama says, "which means that I've got to still do work preparing for Thursday night."
Indeed, with the weekend eaten up by the rollout of his running mate, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, Obama has been up late the past few nights working on his convention speech in a quiet room at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Chicago, returning to his home city every night through last weekend. Always a night owl, the Illinois Senator writes out every idea by hand, revising his thoughts as he logs the pages into a laptop. He's already gone well past midnight twice.
In many ways these are Obama's last training days before the prizefight. The events which have progressed west from Eau Claire, Wis., to Davenport, Iowa, and Kansas City, Mo., and move on to Billings, Mont., tomorrow are modest affairs in which he can test messages and attacks on his opponent, John McCain. And his increasingly wonky, detailed tone is one he says audiences should expect to hear at the convention. "People know that I can give the kind of speech that I gave four years ago," Obama says. "They're more interested in what am I going to do to help them in their lives. 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. I'm much more concerned with communicating how I intend to help middle-class families."
With large numbers of voters still undecided, Obama is hoping to use the convention to answer any lingering questions in people's minds. While the Denver fete is a celebration of the base and a uniting of the party, Obama's appearances this week foreshadow what he hopes to spend the next two months focusing on: convincing swing voters that he's their man. "The more I can speak with undecideds, independents, Republicans," Obama says, "the better off this campaign is going to be, because I think I can make the case I'm the right choice for them. That's what I want to spend my time doing."
In Davenport on Monday Obama went over pretty well with a group of 250 voters handpicked for their undecided status. There wasn't the fawning adulation and roaring waves of some Obama events, but the mostly older, white crowd left impressed. "I was surprised, given the convention, but I think it's great he's here," said David Ward, 58, a Vietnam veteran who is a veterans' advocate from Davenport. Ward said Obama's appearance, including his digs at McCain for being so out of touch that he didn't know how many houses he owned, "solidified" his vote. Obama "seems to know what we're thinking, what we need; he's not one of those multimillionaire guys," Ward said.
Driving home his personal biography, of course, is a central aim of the convention that Obama will finally join on Wednesday. Obama says his aim there is twofold. "I want to make the choice between myself and John McCain as clear as possible. I don't want people to be confused," he says. "And I also hope that the convention conveys who I am. You know, during the course of a 19-month campaign, you're on the television screen, you're in big auditoriums, but sometimes who you are may get lost. And I want people to come off saying: 'Whether I'm voting for the guy or against the guy, I know what he stands for, I know where he comes from and I know what he believes.' " After 19 months of hope and change and a summer in which he's been roundly criticized for not sufficiently defining himself, Obama seems finally, belatedly ready to set the record straight even if he is taking a long and winding road getting to Denver to do it.