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Obama camp downplays Clinton backers at convention

DENVER - Barack Obama's campaign dismissed concerns about the impact of die-hard supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton on the choreographed show of unity Democrats were opening Monday at their nominating convention.

Opening night at the Pepsi Center, the main venue for the four-day Democratic National Convention, aimed to tell the Illinois senator's personal story to the millions of voters nationwide who will begin tuning in to the presidential campaign. Obama's wife, Michelle, was the evening's keynote speaker.

An emotional highlight was expected to come with a video tribute to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. The liberal stalwart was diagnosed in May with a malignant brain tumor and has had surgery and a six-week course of chemotherapy and radiation.

Behind the scenes, however, polls showing significant Clinton support still being denied to Obama and pro-Clinton demonstrations at offsite venues were creating a different kind of anticipation. Clinton has backed Obama and was scheduled to speak Tuesday night.

'There are a lot of delegates here who had passionate choices in an extended primary season,' Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs told 'Today' on NBC. 'We feel confident that if we can demonstrate a record of change, a record of vision ... a team of Barack Obama and Joe Biden can convince Democrats, Republicans and independents to support a ticket of change in November.'

Republican candidate John McCain tried to widen any schism remaining between primary-season rivals with a TV ad featuring a Clinton supporter who now backs McCain over Obama.

'She had the experience and judgment to be president,' says Debra Bartoshevich, identified by the McCain campaign as a former Clinton delegate. Of McCain, she says: 'I respect his maverick and independent streak, and now he's the one with the experience and judgment. A lot of Democrats will vote McCain. It's OK, really!'

Most Democratic delegates were putting the rough-and-tumble primary contest behind them and focusing on electing the first black presidential nominee of a major political party. The night was turned over to Michelle Obama, the candidate's wife of nearly 16 years, to allow the potential first lady a prime-time speech meant to serve a dual purpose: humanize Obama and show up her own critics before her largest audience yet.

With Democrats and convention delegates streaming to the Mile High City, party officials worked to assure a harmonious week.

Clinton was expected by midweek to release the delegates she won in primaries and caucuses and encourage them to support her former rival.

And by unanimous vote, the party's credentials committee restored full voting rights to delegates from Florida and Michigan. The party had stripped both states of their voting rights for holding primaries before the rules said they could. The committee vote was taken at Obama's behest, and Democrats hope the goodwill gesture will help improve their standing in two important states.

Obama, slowly making his way to Denver via a tour of battleground states, said Sunday that one of his goals is for voters to come away from the convention thinking he is one of them. His uncommon name and family background still concern some voters.

'I think what you'll conclude is, 'He's sort of like us,' Obama said in Eau Claire, Wis. 'He comes from a middle-class background. He went to school on scholarships. He had to pay off student loans. He and his wife had to worry about child care. They had to figure out how to start a college fund for their kids.'

Republicans seek to portray Obama as an Ivy-league-educated elitist. His background - white mother from Kansas, black father from Kenya, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia - has been grist for the rumor mill, leading some voters to believe he is a Muslim or unpatriotic.

Obama closes the convention Thursday night when the action shifts to Invesco Field at Mile High stadium, where the 47-year-old, first-term senator will give his speech accepting the nomination from the 50-yard line. He said Sunday he was 'still tooling around with my speech a little bit.'

He is scheduled to campaign Monday in Iowa.

McCain, meanwhile, wasn't disappearing from the campaign trail entirely. He was using an appearance Monday on 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno' and newspaper interviews to stay in touch with voters. And, there's continued interest in his choice of a running mate.

Inside the Pepsi Center, sound technicians made final preparations to the high-tech stage and conducted one final rehearsal after working six days a week for seven weeks to set everything up. Up in the rafters behind the stage were large plastic bags stuffed with signs mounted on white cardboard tube handles that spelled 'M-I-C-H-E-L-L-E' vertically in white against a blue background.

Besides Michelle Obama, other speakers Monday night include Barack Obama's sister, Maya Soetero-Ng, and Craig Robinson, his brother-in-law. The schedule includes a surprise speaker, former Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, a Republican moderate who broke ranks with his party this month and endorsed Obama.

The convention also will give Obama's running mate his biggest audience yet. On Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters aboard her flight to the Middle East that Biden is a 'true patriot.'

'I am not going to talk about the politics of it,' Rice said. 'I'll just say that Sen. Biden is a very fine statesman. I have known him for a long time. He has been a really very supportive committee chair and before that ranking member for the State Department and our diplomatic efforts.'