Democrats Claim ‘Big Tent’ for First Convention in Pandemic

NEW YORK (AP) -
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Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., (L) and former Vice President Joe Biden, talking before a Democratic presidential primary debate in Charleston, S.C., in February. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Ohio’s former Gov. John Kasich, a Republican presidential contender four years ago, joined Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, on Monday in calling for voters across the political spectrum to unite against President Donald Trump. Their urgent warning demonstrated the breadth of Joe Biden’s coalition on the opening night of the Democratic Party’s 2020 National Convention.

The message, outlined in excerpts of their prerecorded speeches, came hours before the official start of the first presidential nominating convention of the coronavirus era. The all-virtual affair is the first without a central meeting place or cheering throngs. Republicans face the same challenge next week.

“My friends, I say to you, and to everyone who supported other candidates in this primary and to those who may have voted for Donald Trump in the last election: The future of our democracy is at stake. The future of our economy is at stake. The future of our planet is at stake,” Sanders declared.

Kasich said his status as a lifelong Republican “holds second place to my responsibility to my country.”

“That’s why I’ve chosen to appear at this convention,” Kasich said. “In normal times, something like this would probably never happen, but these are not normal times.”

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Then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaking at The City Club of Cleveland in 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Democrats abandoned their plans for an in-person gathering in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, because of the pandemic. And as the four-day convention begins, it’s unclear whether the program, which consists of both live speeches and prerecorded videos, can generate the same level of excitement and momentum as past gatherings.

Some of the presentations risk being stale. Former First Lady Michelle Obama, for example, recorded her keynote address before Biden announced his running mate six days ago.

The unprecedented gathering will test the bonds of the diverse Biden-Harris coalition, disparate factions who have clashed in the past but are, at least for now, united by a deep desire to defeat Trump this fall.

“The theme tonight is, ‘We the People’ — not, ‘We the Democrats,’ not, ‘We the Black People,’ not, ‘We White People,’ not, ‘We Republicans,’ but ‘We the People,” said Biden campaign co-chair, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.). “There are a bunch of people out there, silent Biden voters, Republicans that want to vote for Biden or will be voting for Biden, and it’s important to let them know they’re not alone.”

The question of how difficult it will be to vote is also sure to get attention Monday night. Democrats and some Republicans are openly concerned that Postal Service changes will make it hard for voters to be sure their mail-in ballots are received in time and counted.

The former vice president is opening the week leading Trump in the polls. But 78 days before votes are counted, history is not on Biden’s side. Just one incumbent president has been defeated in the last four decades.

Polls also suggest that Biden, a 77-year-old lifelong politician, is on the wrong end of an enthusiasm gap. His supporters consistently say they’re motivated more by opposition to Trump, who is 74, than excitement about Biden. Democrats hope to shift that dynamic beginning with the convention.

Biden will accept the nomination Thursday night in a mostly empty ballroom in his home state of Delaware. California Sen. Kamala Harris, the first Black woman on a national ticket, speaks Wednesday night.

Michelle Obama, whom Gallup determined was the nation’s most admired woman last year, described Biden as a “profoundly decent man” in a video excerpt of her remarks.

“He was a terrific vice president,” she said. “He knows what it takes to rescue an economy, beat back a pandemic and lead our country.”

Obama’s video was following a collection of elected officials and ordinary Americans that highlight extraordinary political and racial diversity.

The scheduled Monday speakers include plenty of Democratic politicians: Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who is the highest ranking African American in Congress; New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo; Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer; Alabama Sen. Doug Jones; Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and two former presidential contenders: Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

However, there were also three high-profile Republicans featured on the convention’s opening night besides Kasich: California businesswoman Meg Whitman, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman and former New York Congresswoman Susan Molinari.

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Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C. listening to Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speak at a Primary Night election rally in Columbia, S.C., in February. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

While united by their disdain for Trump, the speakers represent dramatically different visions for America.

Kasich, who speaks before Sanders, is pro-life and fought labor unions while in office. Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, wants to end the private health-insurance market in favor of “Medicare for All,” a plan that Biden says is too liberal.

Biden’s team also is highlighting several average Americans, such as Kristin Urquiza, who lost her father to COVID-19.

“My dad was a healthy 65-year-old,” she said in excerpts released by the campaign. “His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life.”

With no live audience, the Democrats were forced to get creative to generate a sense of enthusiasm.

The campaign is hosting drive-in viewing stations in six states, where viewers watch on a big screen from the safety of their vehicles.

It will be impossible to engage the total viewership on the first night. Broadcast TV networks plan to show the final hour each night live, cable news will show both hours and many viewers will stream the event from Biden’s website or on social media.

Trump is ensuring he’ll be a part of the political conversation.

The Republican president was making two swing-state campaign appearances on Monday, first in Minnesota and then in Wisconsin, which was to be the location for the Democrats’ convention before the coronavirus outbreak.

Trump said he had “no choice” but to campaign during the Democratic convention in order to address voters in the face of what he described as a hostile news media.

“I have to work. I don’t have the time not to,” the president said on Fox News.

Because of their overwhelming opposition to Trump, there appears to be far less tension among the Democrats’ often-competing factions heading into the 2020 convention than many predicted earlier in the year.

Even if there is leftover resentment between wings of the party, the convention’s online forum doesn’t provide an opportunity for public infighting. Key votes on the party platform already have taken place by mail ballot. The details, expected to be approved overwhelmingly, were hammered out in Zoom meetings.

Without approximately 4,800 Democratic delegates from across the country gathering on the same convention hall floor, as is tradition, the opportunity for a genuine convention debate over the direction of the party has been eliminated.

Trump mocked the convention from afar earlier in the day, noting that several speeches were prerecorded.

“You want to go to a snooze?” he said. “You know when you hear a speech is taped, it’s like there is nothing very exciting about it, right?”