Politics

Former rival Sanders, Republican Kasich to back Biden at Democratic convention debut

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s former top rival and a Republican critic of President Donald Trump will share a virtual stage in a show of unity on Monday, the first night of a four-day Democratic National Convention.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, former first lady Michelle Obama and Republican John Kasich, a former Ohio governor who ran against Trump in 2016, will speak, but tensions emerged with some Democrats complaining Kasich’s inclusion takes up time that could have showcased more diverse and more progressive voices.

The party is making its case for a Biden presidency in the November election even as Trump, his Republican rival, is crisscrossing the United States in a precedent-breaking campaign swing intended to steal some of the spotlight.

“My friends, I say to you, and to everyone who supported other candidates in this primary and to those who may have voted for Donald Trump in the last election, we must come together … and elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as our next president and vice president,” Sanders was set to say according to an excerpt of his remarks released before the speech.

Biden’s vice presidential pick, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California, the daughter of immigrant parents from India and Jamaica, will speak on Wednesday.

Kasich was set to say: “I’m a lifelong Republican, but that attachment holds second place to my responsibility to my country.”

The Biden campaign on Monday morning offered a preview of the night’s events, which it dubbed “We the People” and which will feature a mix of live and pre-recorded speeches.

The speaker list includes several other Republicans, including 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 four nights of two-hour, prime-time packages of virtual speeches and events.

Speaking at a fundraiser before the convention’s prime-time broadcast, Biden, 77, said: “We’ve got to unite this country. It’s the only way it’s going to work.”

Biden, who was vice president under Barack Obama, will be formally nominated on Tuesday to be the Democratic challenger to Trump, 74, in the Nov. 3 election. Biden’s acceptance speech on Thursday will cap the convention.

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Democrats hope the opening night lineup will highlight the coalition arrayed against Trump and offer a contrast to 2016, when lingering bitterness between 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 swiftly endorsed Biden.

The first night also features an array of Americans dealing with challenges created by the coronavirus outbreak, including economic fallout, and working to fight 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 National Convention, which also has been scaled back due to coronavirus concerns.

Trying to steal the 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. Trump, scrambling to catch up in the polls, seeks to use it to better define Biden.

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 later in the week. 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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