US convention season set to begin, with (virtual) spotlight on Biden

US convention season set to begin, with (virtual) spotlight on Biden

Joe Biden and his newly named running mate Kamala Harris will be the focus of the Democrats' virtual convention starting August 17
Joe Biden and his newly named running mate Kamala Harris will be the focus of the Democrats' virtual convention starting August 17

MILWAUKEE - As Democrats on Monday open an unprecedented virtual convention, the party's disparate factions are projecting a united front behind Joe Biden, brought together by their common determination to defeat Donald Trump in November's election.

"It is absolutely imperative that Donald Trump be defeated," Bernie Sanders, a former Biden rival and a keynote speaker on the convention's opening night, told ABC's "This Week."

Adding to the drama, the four-day convention -- originally planned to be held in the Midwestern city of Milwaukee but forced to go online by the COVID-19 pandemic -- takes place amid a furor over Trump's efforts to limit mail-in voting.

The president, insisting without proof that mail-in voting fosters fraud, has threatened to block extra funding that Democrats say is urgently needed to allow the postal service to process millions of ballots.

In normal election years, nominating conventions draw tens of thousands of party faithful for festive events designed to shine a national spotlight on the candidates, introduce the party's rising stars, inspire its base and, hopefully, lure independents and the undecided.

- Virtual atmosphere -

Trump's Republicans will also hold a virtual convention after their attempts to salvage the traditional format failed.

Democrats had picked Milwaukee largely for its location in the important swing state of Wisconsin. The city had spent millions to prepare for the occasion.

But planners have been struggling to find virtual replacements for the usual roaring applause, silly hats, circus-like atmosphere and balloon drops.

Viewers are expected to be treated to live feeds from hundreds of Democratic "watch parties" across the country, some even live-streamed from drive-in theaters.

Several of the groups will be led by Democratic luminaries including other erstwhile Biden rivals Senator Amy Klobuchar and Andrew Yang.

The experimental format will give speakers a chance to address American voters unfiltered, largely shorn of the usual distractions, overwrought stagecraft and screaming delegates.

Or, some fear, it could make for a far more boring show.

- Two former presidents -

Biden enters the convention with poll leads of around nine or 10 points over Trump and amid signs that his history-making pick of Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate -- the first woman of color on a major party presidential ticket -- is widely popular in the party.

Harris, a former prosecutor and the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, has been promoted by Biden as the "American Dream" incarnate. At 55, she brings some relatively youthful energy to bolster the 77-year-old Biden.

Democrats hope keynote speakers on each of the four evenings will draw viewers to the evening time slot that networks have committed to airing.

Monday's top speakers will be Sanders, a leader of the party's most progressive wing, and widely-admired former first lady Michelle Obama; Tuesday will see former president Bill Clinton and Jill Biden, the candidate's wife.

On Wednesday, former president Barack Obama will speak, and Harris will have her moment in the spotlight before the convention culminates Thursday when Biden formally accepts the party's nomination and delivers his acceptance speech -- via videolink from his home state of Delaware.

- A 'non-convention' -

With the virus-hit US economy shedding millions of jobs, Biden will tout his $700 billion "Build Back Better" plan to invest in new technologies and create some five million jobs, an aggressive challenge to Trump.

Earlier speakers will have laid the groundwork for Biden, highlighting "Donald Trump's failed leadership and the promise of what we can and should be with Joe Biden as president," said senior party official Stephanie Cutter.

In a move to soothe raw feelings over a rough Democratic primary season, progressives were given considerable voice in drafting the platform.

And in a nod to inclusivity, former Ohio governor John Kasich -- a moderate Republican -- has been given a speaking spot on Monday.

Judging by history, Democrats will get at least a slight bounce from the convention -- and Republicans can expect the same after theirs, beginning the following Monday.

But whether history is an accurate guide is unclear.

"We really don't know whether this sort of 'non-convention,' or virtual convention plus a speech, will have anything like the kind of short-term impacts that we've seen in previous elections," said Charles Franklin, a Marquette University professor and pollster.

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