DENVER — There is a ritual to attending a sports event in a big stadium. The fans arrive with great hope. Crowded together, they revel in the contest. Finally, they leave, either celebrating or glumly demanding that the coach be fired.

The 85,000 Democrats leaving Invesco Field on Thursday night loved their coach. In a speech that rose beyond the occasion, Sen. Barack Obama changed the dynamics of the presidential campaign. With fire in his eyes and politeness thankfully forgotten, he finally put Sen. John McCain on the defensive, most notably mocking the Republican’s claim that he’s best suited to be commander in chief.

“If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament and judgment to serve as the next commander in chief, that’s a debate I’m ready to have,” he said.

“John McCain likes to say that he’ll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell — but he won’t even go to the cave where he lives,” he declared. “And today, as my call for a time frame to remove our troops from Iraq has been echoed by the Iraqi government and even the Bush administration, even after we learned that Iraq has a $79-billion surplus while we’re wallowing in deficits, John McCain stands alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war.”

On the final night of the Democratic National Convention, I walked the two or three miles from the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver to Invesco. I didn’t want to be jammed on a shuttle bus on my way to witness this historic moment. Many others felt the same. Sidewalks and streets were packed with happy-looking men, women and children. At Invesco the line of men, women and children waiting to get through security stretched far beyond the stadium.

The stadium filled slowly. It takes time to go through metal detectors. At 2 p.m. I was alone in a row of seats just beyond what would be the football end zone. Four hours later, Invesco was filled, except for a few seats in the farthest reaches.

I was the only reporter in my immediate area. Thankfully, my credentials weren’t prime enough to allow me to sit with the media horde. My companions were a Democratic Party official, a father and son there to share history and a bunch of young Democratic congressional aides. They shot pictures of each other, sent out text messages and e-mails, waved American flags, danced, waved their arms, listened to speeches — some good, others tedious — while waiting for the big moment.

The sense of history was reinforced by the date, the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963. “I have dream,” Dr. King said. But it’s doubtful whether Dr. King or the millions watching him in person and on television that day dreamed that an African-American would be accepting the Democratic nomination for president on Aug. 28, 2008.

Obama’s task was to show he was tough enough to humble the Republicans, who have beaten the Democrats skillfully and unmercifully in the last two presidential elections.

In a way, it was like the job facing President Harry Truman when he and his vice presidential nominee, Sen. Alben Barkley, had to rally worried and dispirited Democrats at the 1948 convention. In a crisp, confident voice, Truman proclaimed, “Sen. Barkley and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it — don’t you forget that. We’ll do that because they are wrong and we are right. …”

Thursday night, Obama was almost as tough as Truman. His Democrats are not dispirited, but many of them are worried and need reassurance.

First of all, Obama didn’t waste time being defensive over his race, his background or his name, all of which were dealt with earlier in the convention. Instead he relentlessly focused attention on McCain.

He met head-on the McCain insinuation that he somehow wasn’t a real American. “I’ve got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first,” he said.

And he sought to put McCain on the defensive for one of the Republican’s great weaknesses, his age. He did it indirectly, but the message was clear: Obama is the future; McCain, celebrating his 72nd birthday today, represents the past. “We need a president who can face the threats of the future, not keep grasping at the ideas of the past,” he said.

The age issue will grow as the campaign goes on. The Winston Churchill who was Britain’s prime minister from 1951 to 1955 was not the dynamic leader of 1940 to 1945. Anyone past a certain age — even if he or she doesn’t drink as much as Churchill did — knows about a decline in energy and sharpness as the years increase.

McCain’s choice of vice presidential nominee, Gov. Sarah Palin, will exacerbate the age issue. For the last two years, she has been governor of Alaska, a great place to visit but a state owned by big oil companies. Before that, she was mayor of a town [Wasilla, population 5,470 in 2000]. If anyone is inexperienced in this race, she is.

Facing an aging opponent, with the prospect of Palin being a heartbeat away from the presidency, Obama should be saying, “Thank you, John McCain.”

But a presidential nominating convention is not an election. Harry Truman’s convention speech was great, but it was with a fighting campaign that he won the election, tirelessly traveling the country and winning the support of hesitant voters.

This convention was a beginning for Obama. Now he must continue with the message he expressed so well in his acceptance speech and convince voters, many of whom met him for the first time when they watched him on television Thursday night.

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