In speech, Obama aims to fill in details

Barack Obama has written speeches on notepads, paper scraps and computer screens, in settings that include planes, cars and a men's room at the Illinois Capitol in Springfield.

For the speech he'll give Thursday to accept the Democratic nomination for president, Obama wrote into the night last weekend in a hotel room 15 minutes from his Chicago home. There were no distractions there. And in 2004 he had holed up at a hotel to draft the wildly successful convention speech that catapulted him into national politics.

"Superstition," he says.

Introspective, inspirational, by turns pointed or biblical, and always tailored to the political moment, Obama's speeches have been a defining feature of his historic ascent. This week, with the eyes of millions upon him, the Illinois senator says he won't attempt a reprise of his exhilarating debut four years ago.

"I don't think you can duplicate that kind of moment," Obama said this week.

Besides, he says, he's no longer part of a supporting cast for another standard-bearer. Now he needs to lay out exactly who he is and how an Obama presidency would differ from an administration headed by Republican John McCain.

Thursday is the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream speech and Obama, the nation's first black major-party nominee, says he will note how far the nation has come. But nuts and bolts are his top priority.

"I'm not aiming for a lot of high rhetoric," Obama said. "I'm much more concerned with communicating how I intend to help middle-class families live their lives. I want people to come away saying, 'Whether I'm voting for the guy or against the guy, I know what he stands for. I know what he believes.' "

Obama's lofty language has been an irresistible target for his rivals, from Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton's charge during the primaries that he's "just words" to McCain's attempts to cast his opponent's oratory as a sign that Obama is a vacuous celebrity and/or an arrogant messiah wannabe.

Obama's defenders scoff at the idea that giving a good speech is a weakness.

"Did Ronald Reagan seem less down to earth because he was inspiring in his speeches? Was John Kennedy less down to earth because he asked us to put our country ahead of ourselves?" asks Robert Gibbs, a senior strategist for Obama.

Emphasizing 'personal input'

As Obama prepared Thursday night, spokeswoman Linda Douglass said, he reviewed acceptance speeches by more than a half-dozen presidenital nominees — from Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to Democrats Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and John Kerry. He wrote his own in pencil on a legal pad, typing his words onto a computer. He's been editing it on the road this week with top aides.

Obama, the author of two best-selling memoirs, is a rarity among national political figures in that he has long been intimately involved in preparing the precise words to be used in his speeches.

When he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2000, recalls his former media adviser Chris Sautter, Obama rewrote the announcement speech aides gave him and tweaked scripts for radio ads even as he was walking into a studio to record them.

Gibbs and others who have worked for the Illinois senator say he is the best speechwriter on the staff.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., says Obama's level of involvement is unusual. "There aren't a lot of people in public life who do this personally," he says. "He likes to have personal input."

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., also a best-selling author, says he writes his own speeches and understands why Obama does so.

"When you live in the world of words, specific words are important," he says. "The impact of his words is so strong because they are so personal."

At the 2004 convention, as a state senator running for U.S. Senate, Obama told Democrats that America was not red states and blue states but "one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes." He was asked to remove a line that talked of "one America, red, white and blue" because a similar one was in Kerry's acceptance speech, says Bob Shrum, then Kerry's top adviser. Yet who recalls Kerry delivering that line?

Obama's impact as a speaker and the resonance of his calls to bridge divides are rooted largely in who he is: the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, a man who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia and has a half sister who is half-white, half-Indonesian. As Obama said in 2004 and many times since, "In no other country on earth is my story even possible."

Wayne Fields, author of Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence, says Obama has a "special" voice fusing youth, artistry, a commitment to American values and "the complexity of the cultural change he represents."

Obama offers elegance, strong themes, "tremendous dignity" and relevance to the moment, says Clark Judge, once a speechwriter for Reagan.

However, "it's humorless," Judge says. "He doesn't make jokes. There's no sense of bounce there."

Should Obama lighten up? "I didn't say that. It works for him."

It's working, says Judge, because most people interpret Obama's more downbeat rhetoric as "we need a course correction." But some could hear it as an indictment of a "deeply fallen and deeply troubled society," he says, and that could wind up hurting Obama among voters.

Obama 'reeks hope'

Shrum, a veteran speechwriter, counters that Obama "embodies what Americans would like to believe is best about their country. His message is not a scolding message. It's a hopeful message. He reeks hope."

Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., says the substance of Obama's speeches often is overlooked amid the focus on his stirring language and delivery, and shouldn't be.

"He is very good at analyzing a situation and making a concise and accessible argument," Emanuel says.

McCain is skewering Obama for his words and the huge crowds they attract. One TV ad shows Obama's speech last month at a park in Berlin, which drew an estimated 200,000, and scorns him as "the biggest celebrity in the world" but not "ready to lead."

In an ad dubbed The One, McCain's team uses Obama's words to mock him as a self-anointed messiah. The ad cuts from a pumped Obama on the night he clinched the nomination ("This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal") to Charlton Heston as Moses, booming, "Behold His mighty hand" as the Red Sea parts.

Fields calls put-downs of Obama's eloquence the refuge of those who aren't so eloquent. Their argument amounts to "you can trust our guy because … he's not eloquent enough to mislead you," he says.

For Clinton and now McCain, Obama's speeches have served as foils for them to portray themselves as straight-talking realists.

Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin, Clinton's top strategist at the end of her campaign, now calls Obama's skills "an enormous asset."

They complement his recent attention to "nitty-gritty" economic concerns, Garin says, and "his ability to inspire people through his speeches has put a much sharper focus on McCain's inability to do that."

The GOP attacks haven't kept Obama from seeking huge crowds. He'll give his acceptance speech to about 75,000 people at Invesco Field at Mile High stadium, home of the Denver Broncos.

For the Berlin speech, Gibbs says, Obama could have spoken at a think tank or university. But he wanted "to stand in front of the people of Europe" and tell them they should have more troops in Afghanistan. Likewise, here in Denver, "he didn't want to be in a convention hall with just the elected delegates. … He wants to speak to the country."

Here are four key speeches in Barack Obama's career: