DENVER — Forty-five years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s dramatic call for racial equality in America, Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination to become the first African-American on a major party presidential ticket.
At a rally Thursday as audacious in scale as it was in significance, Obama offered his candidacy as an antidote to the “broken politics in Washington,” and repeatedly drew contrasts with Republican John McCain, describing him as an extension of President Bush and calling on the country to say: “Eight is enough.”
“America, we are better than these last eight years,” said Obama, 47, a first-term Democratic senator from Illinois. “We are a better country than this.”
Obama mixed substance with storytelling, taunting McCain while laying out his own vision and biography. He went on the attack but also attempted to soften his edges, casting himself as an ordinary American who can identify with ordinary American families.
He explicitly defended himself against Republican charges that he is merely a celebrity figure, although critics were quick to highlight how that message appeared at odds with the grandness of the evening — a stadium packed with 84,000 cheering admirers, a stage with Greek columns and a fireworks display. The speech marked the first outdoor acceptance speech by a presidential nominee since John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Obama drew some of the strongest applause when he briefly invoked King — referring to him simply as a “young preacher from Georgia” — the slain civil rights leader who on this date 45 years ago delivered his moving “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
For a candidate who has often dazzled voters from the moment he sprang onto the national stage at the 2004 Democratic convention, Obama did not disappoint his audience. He packed the football stadium, from the field level to the top rafters, with supporters who wanted to win an election or simply witness history.
“I’m speechless about the speech,” said Debra Seawood, 52, of Denver. “I just can’t believe this has happened. It’s a monumental moment. I was looking at him and thinking, ‘I never ever thought I would live to see this day.'”
Shortly after 10 p.m., Obama walked onto the stage to his campaign anthem, U2’s “City of Blinding Lights,” pivoted in a circle as he absorbed the scene of flags, flashbulbs and signs, and waved to the crowd.
Several minutes passed before the cheering died down long enough for him to speak. He looked onto a sea of flashing blues and blue “CHANGE” signs. As he began to speak, he stood with his feet planted firmly parallel.
Before launching into his speech, he thanked the Clintons, his running mate Joe Biden and his wife, Michelle, who was projected onto the JumboTron as she mouthed “I love you” and gave two thumbs up.
He delivered a 40-minute speech replete with overt and subtle attacks on McCain and the Republican Party, laying out differences between their candidacies in some of the starkest terms to date.
Obama, who has been urged by supporters to channel more outrage, mentioned his rival by name 21 times. Though McCain is often described as a maverick, Obama portrayed him as someone who “has been anything but independent” on education, health care and the economy.
“Now, I don’t believe that Sen. McCain doesn’t care what’s going on in the lives of Americans,” Obama said. “I just think he doesn’t know.”
The Democrat highlighted McCain’s off-the-cuff statement at the Saddleback Church forum this month in which he defined “rich” as those making $5 million, and attacked his support of Social Security investment accounts and tax breaks for corporations.
“It’s not because John McCain doesn’t care,” Obama repeated. “It’s because John McCain doesn’t get it. For over two decades, he’s subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy — give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is you’re on your own.
“Well it’s time for them to own their failure,” he added. “It’s time for us to change America.”
Obama walked through his personal history: his grandfather who fought in World War II, his grandmother who “taught me about hard work” and his single mother who once turned to food stamps — in doing so, responding to recent McCain campaign ads that characterized him as merely a celebrity.
“I don’t know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead, but this has been mine,” Obama said. “These are my heroes. Theirs are the stories that shaped me. And it is on their behalf that I intend to win this election and keep our promise alive as president of the United States.”
He took McCain to task for suggesting that he lacks patriotism, saying love of country “had no party.”
“I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain,” Obama said. “The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a red America or a blue America — they have served the United States of America.
“So I’ve got news for you, John McCain,” Obama added. “We all put our country first.”
Obama concentrated more heavily than usual on policy, addressing persistent criticism that he has not laid out his agenda in clear enough terms. He pledged to end dependence on foreign oil in 10 years, cut taxes on working families and small businesses, and eliminate tax breaks for corporations that move jobs overseas.
Obama pushed back at Republican charges that Democrats are soft on national security, saying he will “never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will only send our troops into harm’s way with a clear mission and a sacred commitment to give them the equipment they need in battle and the care and benefits they deserve when they come home.”
The McCain campaign issued a statement shortly after Obama finished, calling his speech “fundamentally at odds with the meager record of Barack Obama.”
“When the temple comes down, the fireworks end, and the words are over, the facts remain: Senator Obama still has no record of bipartisanship, still opposes offshore drilling, still voted to raise taxes on those making just $42,000 per year, and still voted against funds for American troops in harm's way,” the statement read. “The fact remains: Barack Obama is still not ready to be president.”
The speech capped an emotional week for Obama, his family, aides and supporters, who were often seen tearing up on national TV during the highest-profile convention speeches.
It marked the official end of a primary campaign that he began as a distinct underdog. Despite the recognition he gained from his celebrated 2004 convention speech, Obama was still just a freshman senator, running against the party’s reigning political family and testing the boundaries of America’s racial progress. Voters, including African-Americans, voiced skepticism about Obama’s prospects.
Nineteen months later, however, Obama accepted the nomination before an NFL stadium filled with tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters.
It was a risky endeavor, coming as the McCain campaign launched sharp attacks on Obama’s high-wattage candidacy, his ability to mesmerize massive crowds with his oratory and his dedicated following.
Indeed, the event seemed to feed into the caricature. It felt much more like a rock concert or festival than the closing night of a political party convention. Attendees did the requisite wave, pounded feet on the concrete and screamed, “Yes, we can” in deafening unison.
Campaign aides insisted the stadium event was worth the gamble. They coupled the traditional acceptance speech with field organizing, asking attendees to text-message their friends about the campaign. The Colorado state director announced just before Obama took the stage that 30,000 people had signed up with the campaign, supplying important personal data to mobilize volunteers and votes for Election Day.
“I’m just so proud we’re standing here cheering for a black man,” said Judy Rejebian, 53, a small business owner from Denver, who is white.
“What a powerful, powerful moment. I started to cry at the beginning when he said, ‘I accept the nomination.’"
Obama, who appeared as barely a pinprick to those in the last row of the highest tier of seats, managed to rivet the attention of the stadium.
After the speech, after the confetti showered down and fireworks were launched into the sky, Obama left the stage with his family and his running mate, Joe Biden, taking one last glimpse at the crowd before disappearing behind a column.
Amie Parnes contributed to this story.