Hillary Clinton risks being upstaged after that all-star lineup of speakers

This commentary originally appeared on The Hill.

Michelle Obama. Bernie Sanders. Bill Clinton. Joe Biden. Barack Obama.

Few would ever want to follow that "Dream Team" lineup of gifted political orators at the Democratic National Convention.

Then again, Hillary Clinton doesn't really have a choice.

She wants to be president, and the acceptance speech is a rite of passage for anyone seeking the White House.

When the former Secretary of State and first lady steps on stage at Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia on Thursday night, she will make history as the first woman in American history to accept the presidential nomination of a major political party.

But Clinton also finds herself in the difficult spot of going last, after some tremendous speeches by her top surrogates — all of whom have demonstrated an uncanny ability to inspire and connect with huge audiences like the one that will fill the Wells Fargo Arena.

Sanders insurgents, still smarting from their primary defeat and an email scandal showing top Democratic leaders trying to undermine the Vermont senator, could boo and embarrass Clinton on stage. There's the risk of coming off flat, of losing the room, and delivering a speech that's easily forgotten.

"No one wants to be upstaged at their own convention," said one former Clinton aide, adding that "it's obviously a fear for any presidential nominee."

Those watching first lady Michelle Obama's speech Monday from the convention floor and on TV said she knocked it out of the park; some delegates openly wept as the first lady described watching her daughters — "two beautiful, intelligent, black young women" — playing in front of a White House that was built by slaves.

State delegates said they were fired up after New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker's rousing speech that sparked an angry tweet from Donald Trump. Later Monday, Sanders electrified the room and displayed magnanimity as he gave Clinton, his former chief primary rival, a full-throated endorsement that dragged the fractious party a step closer to unity.

The next day, Bill Clinton, the "explainer in chief," deviated from his usual schtick of boiling down complex policy into straight-forward arguments that the average voter can understand. Instead, the folksy former president recited a 42-minute ode to Hillary, taking the American people on a walk down memory lane as he recounted his courtship of her at Yale Law School, their marriage and their early years in Little Rock.

It was Bill Clinton's effort to humanize his wife, who's been caricatured by Republicans and other critics as a cold, calculating and corrupt creature of Washington.

Vice President Biden, the son of Scranton, Pa. who flirted with challenging Hillary Clinton last year, has a knack for connecting with working-class voters — a group with which GOP nominee Donald Trump is making inroads. And Biden can bring a room to tears just by telling stories about his personal tragedies: how a tractor-trailer accident killed his wife and young daughter just weeks after his Senate election, and how brain cancer claimed the life of his oldest son Beau last year.

Then there is Barack Obama, Hillary's relatively inexperienced 2008 political nemesis whose soaring campaign speeches captivated a new generation of voters, carried him to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, and set back her own presidential plans by eight years.

The former Clinton aide pointed to the personal, extremely moving speech then-Sen. Obama delivered at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, stealing the spotlight from the party's nominee John Kerry.

"No one remembers the speech that John Kerry gave," the aide said, "but they do remember Barack Obama."

Make no mistake, all of Hillary Clinton's high-profile surrogates are using their convention address to pitch why the former Secretary of State would make a far superior president than the Manhattan real estate mogul and reality TV star with a knack for dominating a news cycle with a single tweet or utterance.

But with polls tightening after last week's GOP convention, Team Hillary is hoping for a winning speech that will give her a big bounce coming out of the four-day Democratic confab.

"Is there a risk? Yeah, there's a risk anytime you make a high-profile speech," said former longtime Rep.Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a frequent cable TV pundit who was among the Clinton allies booed when they spoke on the convention stage on the opening day.

"But there will be an inherent excitement that she is the first woman to be nomination for president of the United States," he continued. "That will infuse itself with a great deal of excitement."

Clinton has survived countless attacks from Republicans, from Whitewater and the Lewinsky scandal to the FBI investigation into her handling of classified information, Franks argued.

"But given that there are these questions about her, this is a situation where other people can do a better job than she of attesting to her character," the former congressman said. "'I am not a crook' didn't work for Nixon. Nobody else was willing to say that he wasn't. In that sense, having all these people whose character is admirable — Elizabeth Warren, Sanders, Michelle Obama — is all very helpful."

Hillary Clinton is known to rely on many hands when it comes to drafting speeches. In preparing her 2008 convention speech in Denver, she sat with several aides to draft the speech. And in the final hours as she was preparing to deliver the endorsement of then-Sen. Obama, it was nearly reworked by Bill Clinton only to be switched back at that last minute to the speech Hillary Clinton preferred.

Her speeches can sometimes seem muddled and unfocused, but Clinton allies say she delivers her best speeches in key moments. She was highly praised this cycle for her speech in Brooklyn, after clinching the Democratic nomination, where many allies said she had found her voice. And no one can forget her 2008 concession speech that cemented her legacy as a trailblazer for women and young girls around the country.

"Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time," Clinton said eight years ago, "thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it."

One former Clinton speechwriter said the Democratic nominee is fully aware "she has a high bar to clear." But the source said Clinton has been working on her remarks for months with a small team of aides, including chief speechwriter Dan Schwerin.

"This isn't gonna be a rush job," the speechwriter said.

"She has the best team out there and her team has been working on this for months, ever since she clinched the nomination. She rises to the occasion for the moment and I think it's going to be one for the history books."

Other Clinton surrogates hanging out in The City of Brotherly Love this week agreed that she'd give the speech of her life Thursday.

"She will inspire us and show us what a tremendous leader she is while being the warm and compassionate person that I know she is," said Rep. Judy Chu, the chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus who was seated with her California delegation on the convention floor.

Commentary by Scott Wong and Amie Parnes, reporters for The Hill. Follow them on Twitter @scottwongdc and @amieparnes.

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