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1st Night Of Democrats' Virtual Convention Goes Smoothly

NOEL KING, HOST:

This was one message from Democrats on the first night of their national convention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHELLE OBAMA: Whenever we look to this White House for some leadership or consolation or any semblance of steadiness, what we get instead is chaos, division and a total and utter lack of empathy.

KING: Former First Lady Michelle Obama was last night's headline speaker. There was no applause or cheering. The DNC is all virtual this year. That was a prerecorded message. Mrs. Obama was alone in a living room. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was watching. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: How did it go last night?

LIASSON: It was smooth, no technical glitches. It was certainly a convention night produced for this moment, this pandemic moment. Sometimes, it looked like a very highly produced Zoom call. It had a lot more ordinary people in it than it would have had otherwise if it had been live before an audience. But in the end, you know, with this election being so weird, it turned out that a lot of things are very normal and haven't changed at all. Democrats are asking people to judge Donald Trump by the same criteria any president would be judged by. Did he keep people safe and prosperous?

And last night, the biggest impact was from two totally normal speeches - Bernie Sanders, the ideological opponent, the runner-up, showing that the party was unified - and then Michelle Obama, who is clearly the most effective communicator right now in the Democratic Party, doing what she did in the last two conventions which is bring a really emotional message.

KING: How was she so effective last night?

LIASSON: I think she really got this format. I don't know if her speech would have worked as well in a big hall with thousands of people. It was a very intimate speech. It was - she was sitting in her living room, talking to an individual viewer, saying, I'm just like you. I'm hurting like you. She said quote, "you know I hate politics." So she was creating a bond, saying she knew them. And more importantly, they knew her. She gave voters a permission structure, really, to vote for Democrats even if they're not super excited about Joe Biden. Her speech was pretty dark, even a little apocalyptic. She said, if you think things can't get worse, they can, and they will, if she said, Democrats don't vote like their lives depend on it. And here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: We've got to vote early, in person if we can. We've got to request our mail-in ballots right now, tonight, and send them back immediately and follow up to make sure they're received and then, make sure our friends and families do the same. We have got to grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown bag dinner and maybe breakfast, too, because we've got to be willing to stand in line all night if we have to.

LIASSON: So that's something a little different. Democrats have been focused on voting by mail, but she's saying, if you need to, go vote in person. Despite the pandemic, she's telling voters, Democrats, don't stay home like you did in 2016.

KING: The other speaker whose eyes everybody were on last night is Bernie Sanders. He was Joe Biden's major rival in the primaries. He - if anybody, is going to attract progressive to this movement, it could be Bernie Sanders. What was his message?

LIASSON: His message is the party is unified. Bernie Sanders is on board with this ticket in a way he just wasn't in 2016 with Hillary Clinton. And, of course, the virtual format, no live audience, really helped drive the unity message because if there were any unhappy or ununified Sanders supporters, you couldn't see them live on TV...

KING: (Laughter).

LIASSON: ...Crying or booing in the stands, like you did in the 2016 convention. And he also delivered a pretty dark speech. He said our democracy was at stake, but he also gave a ringing endorsement to Joe Biden. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: Too many hardworking families have been caught on an economic treadmill with no hope of ever getting ahead. Together, we must build a nation that is more equitable, more compassionate and more inclusive. I know that Joe Biden will begin that fight on day one.

LIASSON: So tonight, Democrats are going to hear a lot more about Joe Biden, a guy who's been around for 44 years but someone most people don't know that well. Jill Biden, his wife, will speak. And the Democrats will hear from the past and the future of the party, former President Bill Clinton and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

KING: Mara Liasson, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.