Ailing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy prepared to attend, and possibly speak at, the opening of the Democratic National Convention today as Democrats struggled to present a unified front amid lingering tensions left over from a bruising primary battle.
Barack Obama campaigned in Iowa just days before claiming the party's presidential nomination, while the campaign unleashed a mocking ad seeking to link rival John McCain with President Bush and failed economic policies.
The musical "Don't Know Much" commercial signaled that the Democrats' gathering would be as much about skewering McCain as about unifying the fractured party after a protracted primary season that split supporters between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Yet lingering tensions remained. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., acknowledged that Democrats "had not yet achieved the complete reconciliation that we need."
Clinton, meanwhile, made her first convention appearance at a breakfast for New York Democrats. As supporters waved "Hillary Made History" signs, she preached unity &
and took her own shot at McCain.
"Now I understand that the McCain campaign is running ads trying to divide us," she said, referring to recent GOP television spots using Clinton's own earlier words against Obama. "I'm Hillary Clinton, and I do not approve that message," she said, to raucous laughter and applause.
Kennedy, who is being treated for a malignant brain tumor, is a beloved figure within the party. The Massachusetts senator arrived in Denver Sunday night and got a checkup at a local hospital. He plans to attend to watch a video tribute to him and may address the convention if he feels up to it, said a senior Democratic official who talked on the condition of anonymity.
"He's truly humbled by the outpouring of support and wouldn't miss it for anything in the world," said Stephanie Cutter, a Kennedy spokeswoman.
Michelle Obama, who will speak tonight, visited the arena during the morning for a podium check. With her were daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, and other family members. Sasha banged the gavel once and said into the microphone, "Hi there."
As Democrats put the final touches on opening night, Obama's campaign released an ad featuring images of McCain hugging Bush and the two smiling in spite of tidings of economic woe. It features a parody of the Sam Cooke classic "Wonderful World," which starts off with the line "Don't know much about history." For the ad it's "I'm not up on the economy," playing on McCain's earlier admission that economics wasn't his best subject.
Ending with a photo of Bush patting McCain's back, the spot asks, "Do we really want four more years of the same old tune?"
McCain's campaign released its own ad to play on what it sees as a weakness for Obama: his lack of support among some Clinton backers. That ad features a Clinton supporter who now backs McCain assuring like-minded voters: "A lot of Democrats will vote McCain. It's OK, really!"
Pelosi, who is chairman of the convention by virtue of her post as House speaker, said at a news conference that the Obama and Clinton forces would unite. "The nomination is decided, we have a vice president, we're going to work together and go forward," Pelosi said.
She deflected a question about female voters' comfort level with Obama by saying they show a strong preference for him over McCain in public opinion polls, a gender gap she said has emerged "even before the complete reconciliation that we need."
Opening night at the Pepsi Center, the main venue for the four-day convention, aimed to tell the Illinois senator's personal story to the millions of voters nationwide who will begin tuning in to the presidential campaign.
Obama's campaign dismissed concerns about the impact of die-hard Clinton supporters on the choreographed show of unity. Behind the scenes, however, polls showed significant Clinton support still being denied to Obama, and pro-Clinton demonstrations at offsite venues were creating a different kind of anticipation. Clinton has backed Obama and was scheduled to speak Tuesday night.
Most Democratic delegates were putting the rough-and-tumble primary contest behind them and focusing on electing the first black presidential nominee of a major political party. The night was turned over to Michelle Obama, the candidate's wife of nearly 16 years, to allow the potential first lady a prime-time speech meant to serve a dual purpose: humanize Obama and show up her own critics before her largest audience yet.
"Our stories are the quintessential American stories," she said in an interview CNN aired today. "I am here because of the opportunities that my father had, that my mother had. You know, we are who Americans were supposed to be."
Biden, Obama's new running mate, headed by plane to Denver today after making an unannounced visit to the Amtrak train station in Wilmington, Del, that he has used for years to commute to Washington and his day job in the Senate.
"These guys have been my family," said Biden as he greeted vendors and travelers. Biden has taken Amtrak during his 35 years in the Senate. He visited the station with his wife, Jill, and his security detail.
Biden said his Wednesday night convention speech "is all ready."
At some point during the week, Clinton was expected to release the delegates she won in primaries and caucuses and encourage them to support her former rival.
At today's New York delegation breakfast, she sought to assure skeptics that the party's divisions would heal.
"We are after all Democrats, so it may take... awhile," she said, deliberately drawing out her words for comic effect.
"We are not the fall-in-line party," she said. "But make no mistake, we are united."
Obama closes the convention Thursday night when the action shifts to Invesco Field at Mile High stadium, where the 47-year-old, first-term senator will give his speech accepting the nomination from the 50-yard line. He said Sunday he was "still tooling around with my speech a little bit."
McCain, meanwhile, wasn't disappearing from the campaign trail entirely. He was using an appearance today on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and newspaper interviews to stay in touch with voters. And, there's continued interest in his choice of a running mate.
Besides Michelle Obama, other speakers tonight include Barack Obama's sister, Maya Soetero-Ng, and Craig Robinson, his brother-in-law. The schedule also includes former Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, a Republican moderate who broke ranks with his party this month and endorsed Obama.
Sen. Kennedy to appear, may speak