WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Former rival Bernie Sanders and prominent Republican John Kasich joined forces in a display of unity for Joe Biden on Monday (Aug 17), the opening night of a Democratic convention showcasing the broad coalition arrayed against President Donald Trump.
Former first lady Michelle Obama will cap a parade of speakers making the case for a Biden presidency during a four-day virtual convention to formally nominate him as the Democratic challenger to Mr Trump in the Nov 3 US election.
“In response to the unprecedented set of crises we face, we need an unprecedented response – a movement, like never before, of people who are prepared to stand up and fight for democracy and decency,” Mr Sanders, a US senator and Mr Biden’s top primary rival, was set to tell the convention.
The coronavirus pandemic forced Democrats to overhaul the convention, largely eliminating the in-person gathering planned for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and turning it into four nights of two-hour, prime-time packages of virtual speeches and events.
The convention opened amid widespread worries about the safety of voting in November because of the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats have pushed mail-in ballots as a safe alternative, but fear it could be hindered by cost cuts at the Postal Service that, under Mr Louis DeJoy, a top Trump donor, have led to delays in mail service.
The convention featured discussions with voters from around the country who described their struggles confronting the virus and coping with the slumping economy and healthcare.
Ms Kristin Urquiza, who lost her father to COVID-19, blamed Mr Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic for his death.
“My dad was a healthy 65-year-old. His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life,” she said. “When I cast my vote for Joe Biden, I will do it for my Dad.”
The convention also highlighted a call for a broad racial reckoning over systemic racism and police brutality amid protests that broke out after the death of African American George Floyd in Minnesota under the knee of a white policeman.
Speaking from Houston, Mr Floyd’s brother Philonise Floyd introduced a moment of silence and honored other Black victims of police violence.
“So, it’s up to us to carry on the fight for justice. Our actions will be their legacies,” Mr Philonise Floyd said.
A video showed Mr Biden speaking virtually with activists and officials around the country about ways to battle racism.
Mr Jim Clyburn, the influential US Representative from South Carolina whose endorsement of Mr Biden was critical to his breakthrough primary victory in that state in February, said Mr Biden understood the need to unify people was part of presidential leadership.
“Joe Biden is as good a man as he is a leader,” Mr Clyburn said from South Carolina. “We know Joe Biden, but more importantly Joe knows us.”
COUNTRY AT A CROSSROADS
Mr Kasich, a former Ohio governor and frequent Trump critic who lost to Trump in the 2016 Republican primary, described his opposition to Trump as a patriotic duty and said the country was at a crossroads.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One, Mr Trump said Mr Kasich “was a loser as a Republican and he’ll be a loser as a Democrat.”
Other Republicans on the speakers list included former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman and former Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chief Executive Meg Whitman. Their inclusion has angered some Democrats concerned it would take time away from key progressive speakers like Mr Sanders of Vermont and US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“Donald Trump has no clue how to run a business, let alone an economy. Joe Biden, on the other hand has a plan that will strengthen our economy for working people and small business owners,” Ms Meg Whitman said.
But Mr Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana congressman and Biden campaign co-chair, pushed back against that idea, telling reporters earlier in the day, “Remember tonight’s theme is ‘We the People,’ not ‘We the Democrats.’”
In a break with tradition, Mr Trump looked to steal Mr Biden’s spotlight by crisscrossing the United States in a campaign swing to Wisconsin and Minnesota. Candidates usually limit their activities during their opponents’ convention week.
Mr Biden leads Mr Trump in national opinion polls heading into back-to-back convention weeks for the two political parties.
Mr Trump will be formally nominated for a second term at next week’s Republican National Convention, which also has been scaled back due to coronavirus concerns.
Speaking at a fundraiser before the convention’s prime-time broadcast, Mr Biden, 77, said: “We’ve got to unite this country.
It’s the only way it’s going to work.” Mr Biden, who was vice-president under Mr Barack Obama, will be formally nominated on Tuesday to be the Democratic challenger to Mr Trump, 74, in the Nov 3 election. Mr Biden’s acceptance speech on Thursday will cap the convention.
Mr Biden’s vice-presidential pick, US Senator Kamala Harris of California, the daughter of immigrant parents from India and Jamaica, will speak on Wednesday.
Democrats hope the opening night lineup will offer a contrast to 2016, when lingering bitterness between rivals Sanders and nominee Hillary Clinton contributed to her eventual loss to Mr Trump.
This year, Mr Sanders dropped out of the primary race in April and swiftly endorsed Mr Biden.
The first night also features an array of Americans dealing with challenges created by the coronavirus outbreak, including economic fallout, and working to fight racial injustice amid protests against police brutality, organisers said.
Without the cheering crowds of a typical convention, organisers face a challenge in trying to build enthusiasm among supporters.
But the programme could give less involved voters a chance to learn more about Biden on a personal level, said Mr Erik Smith, a Democratic strategist who was the creative director for the last three party conventions.
“They may know his name, but they don’t know that much about him as a person,” Mr Smith said. “The convention can fill in the blanks for people.”
Mr Trump also plans visits to Arizona on Tuesday and the area around Mr Biden’s birthplace of Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Thursday. The busy campaign schedule represents a break from tradition.
Candidates from the opposing party usually limit their activities during their opponents’ convention week because it is difficult to get media attention. Mr Trump, scrambling to catch up in the polls, seeks to use it to better define Biden.
The Democrats’ slimmed-down schedule of speakers prompted grumbling from some young, progressive and Latino activists, who say the programme does not highlight the party’s diverse views or give enough time to its lesser-known rising stars.
Ms Ocasio-Cortez is scheduled to speak later in the week.
Organisers said on Sunday they also will highlight 17 young politicians who are considered future stars, having them share the traditional keynote address in an effort to highlight the party’s racial, ethnic and gender diversity.
Mr Andrew Yang, an Asian-American entrepreneur and former 2020 presidential candidate, also said he was added to the roster after he expressed disappointment that he had been left off.