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New delegates echo Obama's 'change' theme

ST. PAUL -- Jessica Rohloff has been a faithful voter, but not politically active. Barack Obama changed that.

"Barack Obama has inspired me to get involved in the whole process," Rohloff said. "I have been waiting for him since 2004, the first time I heard him speak about the America that is the America I see and believe in."

The Willmar woman's story is like that of thousands of others, including more than 100 Minnesotans like herself, arriving in Denver this weekend for the Democratic National Convention. The delegates, many at a convention for the first time, are ready to celebrate what they think is a new day in politics.

"I truly, truly want to be a part of the process," said Duluth delegate Tonya Sconiers. "This is one opportunity to play a role in government."

Her first opportunity to be involved in politics came in attending the March precinct caucus to support Obama.

"I was excited and really like what I heard coming from the Obama campaign," she said.

When Obama, a U.S. senator from Illinois, came to Minnesota in June to declare he had won the party's presidential nomination, he did so with support of many new party activists.

But not everyone knows Obama, and the convention needs to provide an introduction to more Americans.

"That is why this convention is so important, so people can get to know him," said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., as she prepared to leave for the four-day convention that starts Monday.

The convention culminates in a 75,000-person rally in a football stadium, the first time in recent times, at least, that a national convention has ended outside a convention hall.

"He is basically saying goodbye to politics as usual," Klobuchar said. "It is a 75,000-person symbol."

Obama's campaign theme is "Change we can believe in."

"It will be the best opportunity to address the American people before the election," said state Rep. Kent Eken of Twin Valley, a first-time delegate. "It is a time when we need some change. The country has been going down the wrong road in recent years."

Nearly 50,000 delegates, alternates, media, lobbyists and others will attend the convention -- with a like number coming to St. Paul a week later for the Republican gathering. Democrats will fill the first four nights with traditional speeches and votes for president and vice president. But on Thursday night Obama increases his exposure by taking his acceptance speech to Invesco Field.

The Thursday night event is expected to be quite a draw. Anyone interested in attending has been encouraged to arrive early; gates open at 1 p.m., with Obama not expected on stage until night.

It is a chance for Democrats to unite, an especially important task given the hot primary and caucus contest Hillary Clinton waged against her fellow senator.

"It is really important going into the November election to have a united front," said alternate delegate Ashleigh Leitch of Willmar, a college Democratic leader.

That united front will happen, Democrats say, but there may be some political bumps in the coming days.

"There is a lot more unknown than usual," said Nancy Larson of Dassel, a Democratic National Committee member who begins her second four-year term Friday.

Larson said there will be "a number of votes for Hillary," who will be nominated even though she says she now supports Obama. Clinton speaks on Tuesday night.

"How that is going to stir the crowd and how that is going to affect how people think of the process and does it help, does it hinder, does it bring people closer together, does it send people further apart?" she said of the unknowns.

While the Clinton factor has a chance to create unity problems, Larson said, it also should attract more voters to follow the convention. "It could be a bad thing, it could be a good thing. But I think it could be a good thing."

If more Americans watch the convention, especially Thursday night's acceptance speech, that will help her party, Larson said.

"I think it shows people who Obama is," she said. "He always wants to open things up more."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.