DENVER | An ailing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy dramatically passed the torch of Democratic leadership to Sen. Barack Obama on Monday night while the nominee’s wife opened the party’s nominating convention with an affectionate tribute to her husband as a man strong enough to lead a nation and tender enough to display the “affirming embrace of a father’s love.”
In a night of carefully scripted pageantry and emotional tribute, Democrats opened their quadrennial event still seeking a unity that has eluded them since the close of the bitter primary battle between Mr. Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The job of healing rifts fell initially to the party’s ailing iconic figure who offered his familiar lion’s roar despite weeks of treatment for a brain tumor and the mother of two young children who aspires to be the next first lady.
• VIDEO: On the floor in Denver
Michelle Obama, wearing a sleek turquoise dress with a star brooch, outlined her husband’s world vision.
“Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: That you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them and even if you don’t agree with them,” she told the packed convention hall.
“We want our children and all children in this nation to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them,” she said.
Stealing the show before her, Mr. Kennedy took the stage amid wild cheers.
“The torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans,” he said. “The dream lives on.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama and his former chief rival for the nomination sought to downplay their differences and rally their troops to form a unified front against Republican Sen. John McCain in the fall.
Mrs. Clinton met earlier in the day with her New York state delegation, telling them she planned to cast her vote during Wednesday’s roll call for Mr. Obama and encouraging them to do the same.
The campaigns agreed on a deal to put each of them in nomination and for Mrs. Clinton to get some votes from the start of the roll call, but then end the process and declare Mr. Obama the nominee by acclamation.
But several delegates said from the convention floor they were still backing the former first lady and would not switch to the presumptive nominee until she formally releases them.
“I don’t take it by word of mouth,” said Maxine Goldstein, a Clinton delegate from Georgia who says she will support Mr. Obama. “I was elected to stay with Hillary, and I will stay with her until she says otherwise.”
When Mrs. Clinton’s face appeared on a Jumbotron at the beginning of evening ceremonies, the crowd erupted in cheers.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama downplayed any rift with Mrs. Clinton or her husband, former President Bill Clinton, both of whom speak later in the week.
“We are gathered here in Denver for a very clear and simple purpose, and that is to come out of the convention energized and united and ready to elect Barack Obama as the next president of the United States,” Mrs. Clinton said at the New York state Democratic delegation breakfast. “I want to ask each and every one of you to work hard for Barack Obama and [vice presidential nominee] Joe Biden.”
Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean gaveled the convention to order, praising the activists as “the most vibrant, inclusive and energized party,” adding “we are ready to compete in all 50 states in November.”
Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy and niece of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, led the tribute to “Uncle Teddy,” saying he and Mr. Obama were leaders of the rarest type.
“Their stories are very different, but they share a commitment to the timeless American ideals of justice and fairness, service and sacrifice, faith and family,” the close Obama confidante said. “Leaders like them come along rarely. But once or twice in a lifetime, they come along just when we need them the most.”
Following a tribute video that featured the senator sailing with his family, Mr. Kennedy strolled on stage with only minimal help from his wife, Vicki, as the delegates cheered wildly.
“Nothing, nothing is going to keep me away from this special gathering tonight,” he boomed, to chants of “Teddy, Teddy!”
He said that under Mr. Obama the nation will finally reform health care, “the cause of my life.”
“Yes, we can, and finally yes, we will,” he said. He had a bandage on his left hand and showed thinning hair from his cancer treatment, but was in top oratorical form.
With Mr. Obama’s early lead evaporating into a dead-heat race with his Republican challenger, many of Monday’s speakers sharpened their expected attack lines in the fall, casting Mr. McCain as a wealthy out-of-touch Republican who doesn’t even know how many homes his family owns and whose presidency would be a third term for President Bush.
“Unlike the senator from Arizona, my family doesn’t have a private jet,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led the crowd in a chant of “John McCain is wrong!”
Mr. McCain spent Monday fundraising in California and appeared on “The Tonight Show,” but his moment to seize the national stage is coming with the choice of his vice-presidential candidate expected as early as Friday and the start of the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn., next week.
Everywhere, the signs of a generational change in the party were evident. The centrist Democrats of the 1990s Clinton era were left mostly on the sidelines, while union leaders, the proudly liberal Mrs. Pelosi and other supporters of Mr. Obama made the case for his election on the first night.
No longer calling themselves liberals (they prefer the title “progressives”), many of the early speakers argued for traditional Democratic values, from universal health care to the right to abortion. Civil rights also got renewed attention, as Democrats argued the Bush administration’s war on terrorism infringed on personal freedoms. Republicans have countered that such policies have kept Americans safe from a terrorist attack for nearly seven years.
Ever-cognizant of the need to attract moderates and independents, the convention organizers also sprinkled in pitches with more centrist themes. Former Iowa Republican Rep. Jim Leach, who is supporting Mr. Obama, was given a televised slot Monday night and even the pro-choice forces tempered some of their language to appeal to Catholics and other anti-abortion constituencies.
Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, known for working with Republicans, gives the keynote address Tuesday.
The evening was peppered with people who have been influential in the Illinois senator’s life, along with prominent politicians who backed Mr. Obama early in the primary battle.
Part of the evening was also dedicated to introducing Mrs. Obama to the nation. Her own video biography spot was narrated by her mother, who helps take care of the two young Obama daughters.
Taking center stage before a national audience for the first time after an introduction by her brother, Craig Robinson, Mrs. Obama weaved stories of the couple’s private life in making the case he is ready for the nation’s top public office.
Mrs. Obama, who campaigns frequently for her husband and speaks to women’s groups on his behalf, was able to put a more personal touch on the Obama biography, which included a frequent line from the campaign trail. The couple, both Harvard-educated lawyers, were still paying off student loans at the beginning of the decade before Mr. Obama’s book sales gave them a big boost.
She said her personal story of growing up in a working-class family on the South Side of Chicago proves that in America, anything is possible. She also outlined Mr. Obama’s upbringing, raised by a single mother who sometimes needed to use food stamps to feed her son “Barry” and her daughter Maya, who also spoke Monday night at the convention.
The emphasis on their families’ similarities to “working-class folks” aimed to counter the Republican charge that the Obamas are elitist.
Many voters until Monday night had not seen much of the first lady hopeful outside of her February comments in Wisconsin, in which she said, “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country.” She adjusted the statement quickly to say “really proud,” and has explained the words did not accurately express her pride.
One of the loudest applause lines in her speech was her line that “I love this country.”
To emphasize the Obamas can understand the plight of everyday Americans, Mrs. Obama pulled at heartstrings, recounting when they brought their first daughter home from the hospital.
“After all that’s happened these past 19 months, the Barack Obama I know today is the same man I fell in love with 19 years ago,” she said. “He’s the same man who drove me and our new baby daughter home from the hospital 10 years ago this summer, inching along at a snail’s pace, peering anxiously at us in the rearview mirror, feeling the whole weight of her future in his hands, determined to give her everything he’d struggled so hard for himself, determined to give her what he
never had, the affirming embrace of a father’s love.”
Mr. Obama watched his wife’s speech with the Girardeau family of five in Kansas City, Mo., and came on in a video address while their two daughters, Malia and Sasha, came out on stage. Mr. Obama said his wife looked great, and she left the stage to the tune of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.”
“Hi, daddy!” Sasha shouted. The girls also corrected Mr. Obama, who at first said he was in St. Louis.
After three days of activities in the Pepsi Center, the convention will move outside to Invesco Field at Mile High, where Mr. Obama will deliver his acceptance speech from the Denver Broncos’ 50-yard line.
The senator has been working on his acceptance speech all week, spending late nights in Chicago on what senior adviser Valerie Jarrett called a “work in progress.”
Ms. Jarrett said during a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor that Mr. Obama would be “working on it up until the very last minute.”
Delegates were thrilled at the new life Mr. Obama has breathed into the party, which has not won a presidential election since 1996.
Many attributed the excitement to Mr. Obama himself, who first graced the national stage four years ago when Sen. John Kerry was the Democratic nominee.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said his colleague’s 2004 convention keynote “changed the Democratic Party and may change the nation.”
“It was that kind of speech,” he said.
He remembered touring 39 Illinois cities in six days with Mr. Obama following the speech, when the Democrat was a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Among the cities was DeKalb, home to then-Republican House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.
In such a red region at 9 a.m., “You expect 20 of the party faithful with a box full of donuts, and we got 1,200 people, and I thought to myself something just happened that goes way beyond a speech.”
Mr. Durbin, also speaking at the Monitor breakfast, said the junior senator “has brought in a new generation of leadership.”
Ms. Jarrett said the team is not worried that Mr. Obama’s once solid lead nationally has evaporated, and most tracking polls show him deadlocked with the Arizona senator.
“If we were to pay attention to the national polls, Barack would have dropped out last summer,” Ms. Jarrett agreed, a reference to Mrs. Clinton’s “inevitable” front-runner status last year.
Sean Lengell contributed to this report.