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Denver, Meet the DNC

Krissy Clark

Democrats from around the country are headed to Denver, by plane, train, and Prius, for their party's national convention. On Monday the delegates, regular and super, will get down to business, hammer out this year's party platform, pump themselves up--and the rest of America, they hope--for the general election season. But Denver's not waiting until then to get their party started.

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Barack Obama is not in Denver until Thursday, but his words are already ringing from this podium at a Karaoke bar in downtown Denver.

"We are hungry for change. We are tired of business as usual in Washington."

The words are coming from the mouth of a man in a button-down shirt, who is performing an actual Obama speech, to an adoring crowd at the bar. He's not bad.

"We will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of the American people in three simple words: Yes. We. Can."

The crowd cheers-the real one, and the one on the karaoke tape. Political theater may have never been more literal.

To make the scene more surreal, the man reading these words from the karaoke screen is the mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper, who is scheduled to give his own speech at the Convention this week too. But tonight, he delivers Obama's, to kick off a series of Convention Week art installations, sponsored by the city. This piece is called, fittingly, "Convention Karaoke," and with it, people in karaoke bars across Denver will be able to read along to their favorite political speeches.

So how did the mayor feel after being Obama for five minutes?

"You realize what the man stands for, and how hard he works to communicate," Hickenlooper says. "It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck."

Chills, swoons, goose bumps: the Obama phenomenon that we have gotten used to this primary season is at a whole new level now in Denver. Over at DNC volunteer headquarters, organizers are trying to figure out just what to with all the people who want to help their nominee. 26,000 volunteers have signed up, compared to 15,000 at the DNC four years ago. A coordinator named Emily Brooks says the excitement has gone way beyond t-shirts and bumper stickers. "One of our volunteers who's going to be here next week has custom-made embroidered dresses, that say Obama across the front. And they're beautiful."

Brooks is in charge the call center that gives out assignments to eager convention volunteers. Like the woman who flew in from Chicago-for one day-to stuff media tote bags. Like the Clinton supporter wants to hug Hillary, and shake Obama's hand. There is the 90-year-old who calls herself "The Obama Mama." There is 26-year-old Koryea Dwanyen who is dying to take a picture of her political hero. "My camera's already charged."

I ask her what she things of the criticisms that Obama is too much a celebrity. Maybe Obama-mania has liabilities.

"That's just ridiculous," Dwanyen says. "I think what this country needs is a lot of people that are actually excited and motivated, because it's in a rut."

Fifty thousand of those excited, motivated people, are expected to be in Denver for the convention, and local businesses are hoping to impress, and sell things to them.

At the airport, you can buy a stuffed donkey within seconds of walking off your plane. Elsewhere, you can have your picture taken in a ski lift chair, in front of a 12-foot tall snow globe, courtesy of Vail Resorts.

Behind the scenes, the city has scrambled to live up to the mayor's challenge earlier this year, that this convention could be, "The greenest convention in the history of the planet"

An impossible task, if you consider the last DNC that Denver hosted, in 1908. It had a tiny carbon footprint through no efforts of its own. But, for a modern convention, the 2008 DNC is faring pretty well, according to Parry Burnap, the director of convention greening for Denver. This year, delegates will be able to move around the city by bike and hybrid SUV. They will be able to eat, sometimes, on compostible plates. And delegates will learn to sort their recyclables.

All of which amuses Mary Smith, the chair of the Denver County Republican Party. "God bless 'em," she says of her Democratic neighbors. "If they want to pick through all the trash of 50,000 visitors, I think that's going to be a tough haul."

Smith is in one of the few bars downtown that is not draped with "Welcome Democrats" signs. In the last few years, politics in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West have shifted to the left. But there are still plenty of conservatives in town this week. The state GOP has rented a hall to premiere a new film called "Hype: The Obama Effect." Others will take the charm offensive, passing out water bottles to thirsty looking delegates.

Some communities in Denver are not lobbying for or against the Democrats this week. They are largely left out of the Convention Process when it comes to town: The homeless, those disenfranchised by poverty, or illness, or traumas from war. Denver is trying to extend the week's political process to some of them.

The recorded voices of homeless veterans will be projected from the gun barrel of a Humvee that's rolling around town. It's another of the art installations sponsored by the city.

But the city will keep other political acts at a distance. The so-called free speech zone where protesters are allowed is almost completely out of eye and ear shot from the DNC.

Of course, before the convention or the protests start, there's still spiffing up to be done. A woman stoops over a long brass railing on the steps to City Hall, polishing. The rails are black, except for the parts Lawrence has already shined.

"I'm working off a ticket," explains Vanessa Lawrence. "I didn't come to a complete stop at a stop sign."

Lawrence says she couldn't pay the ticket, because she just lost her house to foreclosure. She moved here from Mississippi in 2005, after her home there was destroyed by hurricane Katrina.

She's not personally involved in the Convention this week, but she says she does have a little DNC fever.

"I am very much an Obama supporter. And it's very exciting," she says.

Then Lawrence goes back to polishing the railing. She's got two and a half more to clean before Monday.

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