Democrats to kick off convention with show of unity for Biden; some Republicans to speak

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats kick off a four-day virtual convention on Monday with a display of party unity for U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden and the broad coalition aiming to defeat Republican President Donald Trump in November.

Biden’s top primary rival, Senator Bernie Sanders, former first lady Michelle Obama and Republican John Kasich, a former Ohio governor who ran against Trump in 2016, will headline a parade of speakers appearing from around the country to make a virtual case for a Biden presidency, organizers said.

The Biden campaign on Monday morning offered a preview of the night’s events, which it dubbed “We the People” and will feature a mix of live and pre-recorded speeches. The speakers will try to identify the challenges Americans face and how Biden plans to address them by unifying the country.

“When we the people stand united as one America, we can overcome anything,” said Symone Sanders, a top Biden campaign adviser.

The speaker list includes several Republicans, including Kasich, former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman and former Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chief Executive Meg Whitman. Their inclusion has angered some Democrats who are concerned it will take time away from key progressive speakers like Sanders of Vermont and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

But Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana congressman and Biden campaign co-chair, pushed back against that idea, saying, “remember tonight’s theme is ‘We the People,’ not ‘We the Democrats.’”

The coronavirus pandemic forced Democrats to overhaul the convention, largely eliminating the in-person gathering planned for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and turning it into two-hour, prime-time packages of virtual speeches and events.

Biden, who was vice president under Barack Obama, will be formally nominated on Tuesday to be the Democratic challenger to Trump in the Nov. 3 election. Biden’s acceptance speech on Thursday will cap the convention.

Democrats hope the opening night lineup will highlight the united coalition arrayed against Trump and provide a contrast to 2016, when lingering bitterness between primary rivals Sanders and nominee Hillary Clinton contributed to her eventual loss to Trump.

This year, Sanders dropped out of the primary race in April and quickly endorsed Biden.

The first night also will feature an array of Americans dealing with challenges created by the coronavirus epidemic, including economic fallout, and working to combat racial injustice amid protests against police brutality, organizers said.

BUILDING ENTHUSIASM

Without the cheering crowds of a typical convention, organizers face a challenge in trying to build enthusiasm among supporters.

But the program could give less involved voters a chance to learn more about Biden on a personal level, said 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,” Smith said. “The convention can fill in the blanks for people.”

Biden leads Trump in national opinion polls heading into back-to-back convention weeks for the two political parties. Trump will be formally nominated for a second term at next week’s Republican convention, which also has been scaled back due to coronavirus concerns.

Trying to steal some of Biden’s spotlight, Trump will make campaign visits to battleground states Wisconsin and Minnesota on Monday and Arizona on Tuesday. Trump will visit the area around Biden’s birthplace of Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Thursday.

Trump’s 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, but Trump, scrambling to catch up in the polls, is seeking to use it to better define Biden.

Biden’s vice presidential pick, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California, the first Black woman and Asian-American woman on a major-party White House ticket, will speak on Wednesday.

The Democrats’ slimmed-down schedule of speakers prompted grumbling from some young, progressive and Latino activists, who say the program does not highlight the party’s diverse views or give enough time to its lesser-known rising stars.

Ocasio-Cortez is scheduled to speak. Organizers 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.

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.

Julian Castro, a prominent Latino who was a housing and urban development secretary under Obama and ran an unsuccessful 2020 presidential campaign, did not get a speaking slot. He will be in a pre-recorded video featuring many of the Democrats who competed with Biden for the nomination.

“At a time when Latinos are poised to be the biggest non-white voting bloc in November, it’s disappointing,” said Sawyer Hackett, a Castro aide.

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