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Washington diary: Anxious Democrats

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Denver

If you had any doubts that American party conventions were about ritual, you should talk to my friend who found herself in the Ladies as the gavel went down on the Denver proceedings.

Members of the American GI Forum present the colours during day two of the Democratic Convention, 26 Aug 2008
US party conventions are the scene of patriotism and ritual

As she and her colleagues obeyed the calls of nature, the Star Spangled Banner piped out of the loudspeakers. Despite being inconvenienced in the convenience, the Americans immediately obeyed that other call, the one to honour the flag.

The Ladies on the second floor of the Pepsi Center hummed to the sound of ladies singing along to the National Anthem and holding their hand over their heart. My friend does not know whether this show of patriotism extended into the privacy of the cubicles but she did point out that what she witnessed would never have happened in the UK.

I wonder if the Republicans, who have set up their own war room here in the Mile High City, were taking note.

They have, after all, questioned not just the patriotism of Barack Obama, but his American identity.

The first day of the convention was carefully choreographed to allay voters' fears that despite his exotic name and complicated upbringing, Mr Obama was as American as the next citizen in this country of immigrants.

If the symbolism can't be hammered home during convention week, when can it?

His wife, Michelle Obama, was almost in tears when she pleaded with the cameras that she loved America.

Her family story, delivered with an inevitable hint of treacle, was the iconic journey from wholesome poverty to wholesome public service. The gorgeous daughters were on stage to prove the point.

And just before you thought you had witnessed a rerun of the Cosby Show, the candidate himself popped up on a video link from Kansas City, Missouri, surrounded by a regular family of American voters, all white.

It looked a little ham-fisted but then this is a campaign and if the symbolism can't be hammered home during convention week, when can it?

Democratic royalty

While Michelle Obama reintroduced her family as regular American folks, the gravelly baritone of a terminally-ill Ted Kennedy was there to illustrate how extraordinary the ordinary Obamas are.

The Kennedy clan is Democratic royalty. Like Germany's Hohenzollerns, Austria's Habsburgs or Britain's Windsors, they even display the predominant gene of royalty. In the Kennedys' case these are square jaws, Lego-sized teeth and a broad forehead. And, like all royalty, they guard their legacy jealously.

Senator Edward Kennedy addresses the convention, 25 Aug 2008
The Kennedy clan sprinkled political stardust on the Obama family

On Monday night, the last surviving member of the ill-fated quad of Kennedy brothers passed the family torch to the Obamas.

He did so right over the heads of the people who had originally expected to inherit the torch, the Clintons.

What added insult to injury was that Caroline Kennedy, the former president's daughter, was in charge of the committee to find a suitable vice-president and Hillary was, it seems, not even on her short list.

Sprinkled with Kennedy stardust, buoyed by Michelle Obama's slick performance and reassured by the rhetorical gift of the candidate himself, the Democrats should be in a Mile High Club of euphoria.

After all, the winds of change should be blowing against the Republicans and their president. But, everywhere you look in Denver, you find nail-biting delegates, nervous surrogates, defensive campaign staffers.

The rest of the world thinks that Mr Obama will be America's 44th president but, at home, the Democrats are the worried party.

To some extent, this is their traditional role. Like Woody Allen in one of his earlier movies, the Democrats excel at fretting, agonising, navel gazing and over-analysing.

The opinion polls, which have Mr Obama and his Republican rival John McCain neck-and-neck, prove that they have reason to worry.

The senator from Illinois has had an arid summer. He needs to have a bountiful harvest season.

The ghost of Clinton

But the other reason for anxiety is the Lady who broods in the wings. Of late, Hillary and Bill Clinton have not uttered a single public word of apostasy. They are toeing the line, gritting their teeth and swallowing their pride.

A supporter marches for Hillary Clinton in Denver, 26 Aug
Many Democrats are finding it hard to let go of their hopes for Mrs Clinton

They are also economical with their enthusiasm. I am told that senior Clinton people aren't even sticking around for Obama's big stadium speech on Thursday. This is damning with faint praise.

Moreover, such was the Clintons' hold over the party that the faithful almost expect them to lash out and derail the meticulous choreography. Like the children of over-bearing parents, they expect wrath, even if there's no evidence of it.

Hillary Clinton has become Lady Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited, a living reminder of the perils of abandoning orthodoxy - the orthodoxy of a Clinton candidacy - and a permanent finger on the delicate bruise of guilt and self-doubt, that this may turn out to be a mistake.

The Republicans are doing their best to press on the wound.

As the Wall Street Journal asked: How could the Democrats choose a running mate - Joe Biden - who garnered no more than 9,000 votes and ignore one who harvested 18 million during the primary season?

The ghost of Clinton needs to be exorcised from the convention and that is something that only Hillary and Bill can do. The ritual of convention alone is not enough.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News Americawhich airs every weekday at 0030 BST on BBC News and at 0000 BST (1900 ET / 1600 PT) on BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


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