Barack Obama will enter a stage bordered by Greek columns and walk down a runway that dead-ends at a lectern on an island. There, alone at the center of Colorado's biggest stadium, he will stare out at 2,000 lawn chairs pressed toward the stage, 75,000 people crammed into three levels of seats and 450 stadium spotlights pointed directly at him.
Even for Obama, a veteran speechmaker, the setup at Invesco Field makes for the most intimidating venue of his career. On the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama will become the first African American to accept a major party nomination for president.
His campaign has gambled on the historic moment by crafting a stage that will magnify Obama's performance. Succeed here, in front of the largest Democratic National Convention crowd in 50 years, and Obama's speech will be remembered as one of the most powerful moments in modern politics. Fail, and Obama risks fueling Republican criticism that he is an aloof celebrity, fond of speaking to big crowds but incapable of forming genuine connections.
Obama wrote the speech last week in the manner that has become his custom, crafting a first draft by hand on yellow legal paper. He found inspiration in remarks given by Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, advisers said. Then he sequestered himself in a Chicago hotel room, preferring it to the chaos of his house or campaign headquarters.
“I think I have to do two things,” Obama said this week. “I want to make the choice between myself and John McCain as clear as possible. I don't want people to be confused. And I also hope that the convention conveys who I am. You know, during the course of a 19-month campaign, I think that you, 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 away saying, ‘Whether I'm voting for or against the guy, I know what he stands for.'”
Obama said he expects his acceptance speech to be “workmanlike,” which would mark a major departure from the formula he has relied on during key public moments in his life.
At the last Democratic National Convention, in Boston in 2004, Obama cemented his reputation as a talented public speaker by delivering a 17-minute keynote address that focused thematically on the country's divisions. His speech contained few new ideas, but transformed him overnight from an Illinois state senator into a national figure.
Tonight's speech, Obama said, will contain few similarities to his 2004 address. He has become sensitive to the criticism that his speeches are rife with emotion and lacking in content, friends said, and he is expected to outline how he will try to address domestic and foreign problems.
But changing style carries risks. “You can talk all you want about policies and programs, but that's not what people respond to,” said Martin Medhurst, a professor of rhetoric at Baylor University. “People respond when they are touched emotionally, and that's what he's so good at. It's going to be very important in his speech tomorrow night that people get excited emotionally. That's what they want from him.”
The last time Obama delivered a major speech – to 200,000 people in Berlin – images from the event ended up in the background of a John McCain ad, which referred to Obama as “the biggest celebrity in the world.” On Wednesday, the McCain campaign e-mailed reporters descriptions of the Greek columns as more proof of its portrayal of Obama as egotistical and out of touch.