MILWAUKEE: US Democrats opened their unprecedented online nominating convention Monday with a show of unity behind Joe Biden, as former first lady Michelle Obama said the party’s presidential candidate “knows what it takes” to lead the nation out of crisis.
With the Democratic Party poised to officially anoint the 77-year-old Biden as its nominee, President Donald Trump defied coronavirus concerns and staged competing events in Wisconsin and neighbouring Minnesota.
But at 8pm Wisconsin time, Americans tuned in to what appeared to be a carefully choreographed opening for the four-day unifying confab.
“Every four years we come together to reaffirm our democracy”, the convention’s moderator, actress Eva Longoria, said in the opening moments.
“This year we’ve come to save it.”
Barack Obama’s popular wife Michelle was given the prime-time slot on the opening night of the convention, which was to have been held over four days in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but which is now taking place almost entirely online because of the Covid-19 outbreak.
In excerpts of her remarks released ahead of her taped speech, Obama said Biden was a “terrific vice-president” during the eight years he served as her husband’s No 2.
“I know Joe. He is a profoundly decent man guided by faith,” she said.
“He knows what it takes to rescue an economy, beat back a pandemic and lead our country,” the former first lady said.
“He will tell the truth, and trust science,” she said in a jab at Trump, who has been accused of repeatedly ignoring the advice of his scientific advisors on how to respond to the pandemic.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who challenged Biden for the nomination from the progressive left, was also due to address the convention, which is being live-streamed, on Monday.
“This election is the most important in the modern history of this country,” Sanders said in prepared remarks.
“The future of our democracy is at stake,” he said.
“The future of our planet is at stake.”
Electing Biden over Trump is an absolute necessity, he stressed.
“My friends, the price of failure is just too great to imagine.”
Trump flew on Air Force One meanwhile to Mankato, Minnesota, and Oshkosh, Wisconsin and delivered remarks to supporters gathered on the airport tarmacs.
Speaking in Oshkosh, Trump accused Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris of seeking to enact “crazy socialist policies”.
“This is the most dangerous election we’ve ever had,” Trump said.
“This will be a very large-scale Venezuela if they win.”
“The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged,” added the president, who trails Biden in nearly all national polls as well as multiple battleground states.
The Democratic convention is taking place amid a furore over Trump’s own efforts to limit mail-in voting.
Insisting without proof that it fosters fraud, Trump has threatened to block extra funding that Democrats say is urgently needed to allow the US Postal Service to process millions of ballots.
Democratic Party chairman Tom Perez said the convention would push back against Trump’s “assault on our democracy” by highlighting efforts to protect voting by mail.
Oshkosh, where Trump was speaking, is about a 90-minute drive north of the Milwaukee arena where Democrats had intended to gather in a sign of eagerness to win back Wisconsin, one of multiple Democratic strongholds which flipped to Trump in 2016.
But the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed some 170,000 people in the US, upended election campaigning.
The Democratic convention and the Republican event, which begins on Aug 24, will be held virtually, without the usual roaring crowds and confetti.
“We may be physically apart, but this week Democrats are coming together from across the nation to put forth our vision for a better America,” Biden tweeted.
Live and curated content
The experimental convention format will allow speakers to address American voters unfiltered – largely shorn of the usual overwrought stagecraft and screaming delegates.
Biden and Harris will address the convention live via video link, while other speeches will be “a mix of live and curated content”, the campaign said.
Biden, whose poll leads over Trump remain significant, despite a slight tightening of the race, is hoping Harris – the first woman of colour on a major party’s presidential ticket – will invigorate Democrats.
The California senator, former prosecutor and daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants is 55 and brings relatively youthful energy to the ticket.
Tuesday will see addresses from former president Bill Clinton and Jill Biden, the nominee’s wife.
On Wednesday, Barack Obama will speak, and Harris will have her spotlight moment before the convention culminates on Thursday when Biden formally accepts the Democratic nomination and delivers his acceptance speech.