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5 Things To Watch Tonight

Barack Obama wins the Democratic presidential nomination tonight, but it’s a formality on top of a formality. Obama secured the delegates he needed back in June, and those delegates actually cast their votes in hotel banquet rooms earlier today.

Their work done, the delegates can sit back and watch the show tonight: an early evening pitch for the Democrats’ Senate hopefuls — sans the seemingly unseemly Al Franken — then Nancy Pelosi’s “Women of the House” ceremony and Harry Reid’s turn at the podium.

After that, it’s the Bill and Joe show.

It could be a very long night.

Here are five things to watch along the way:

1. Clinton-palooza, Day Two

If there was ever a time Obama regretted not picking Hillary Rodham Clinton as his running mate, it might be tonight.

Putting aside the usual electoral arguments for choosing her, a Hillary selection might have spared Obama the queasy spectacle of watching the former first couple “getting their due” during a two-day Clintonfest that has devoured the convention’s time, energy and focus.

Tonight’s unpredictable, gut-clenching Clinton coda: Bill’s Big Speech.

Hillary’s Tuesday night couldn’t have gone better. By most accounts, the former first lady succeeded magnificently in burying the hatchet (in John McCain’s candidacy), with even longtime Clinton critic John Fund of The Wall Street Journal calling it in the “best speech of her career.”

But she isn’t nearly as angry as her husband. The former president — still reportedly seething over what he sees as the Obama campaign’s portrayal of him as a racist — thinks the Illinois senator has been dismissive of his accomplishments as president. Clinton, according to our John Harris, has clashed with Obama’s aides over tonight’s speech — they want him to stick to foreign affairs, while Clinton wants to launch an all-fronts attack on McCain that includes pocketbook issues.

Insult to potential injury: Clinton has told organizers he’ll be skipping Thursday’s Obama rally at Invesco Field.

Still, what Clinton says will be less important than what he doesn’t say. He’ll likely exceed the minimum daily requirement for Obama-praising. But chances are you won’t be hearing an extended, impassioned, personal appeal to vote for “the most experienced, compassionate and deserving person for the job — my dear friend ...”

2. Oh, yeah, Joe Biden’s speaking, too

At any other convention, the vice-presidential nominee would dominate the spotlight. But Biden — whose penchant for straying from the script is second only to Bill Clinton’s — finds himself trapped in the Shadow of Bubba.

Yet Biden is capable of changing the night’s narrative — either by talking about his own struggles or by launching a colorful attack on his old friend John McCain. In many respects, the Delaware senator’s life story is as compelling as that of any American politician not named McCain. Although he’s supposed to concentrate on foreign affairs, Biden can move people when he talks about his past, especially his resilience following the deaths of his young wife and infant daughter in the early 1970s.

Whichever route he chooses, Biden needs to make it clear that he defers to Obama. Biden’s years of Senate experience and foreign policy expertise are among the main reasons he was tapped as Obama’s running mate. But they carry the risk that his presence on the ticket could make Obama look inexperienced — a major GOP line of attack and one that Biden himself wielded back when he was running for the nomination Obama gets tonight.

Biden also needs to distance himself from McCain, whom Biden has called a hero and lauded for leadership on climate change and troop levels. McCain has already created an adfeaturing a 2005 video of Biden saying he “would be honored to run with, or against, John McCain,” and Republicans can be expected to roll out more McCain flattery from the Biden archives.

In the meantime, Biden insiders are thinking about ways to inoculate the loquacious senator from the inevitable campaign-trail gaffes to come. One concept: Have him riff tonight about how he speaks from the heart, thereby turning a potential weakness into a strength down the homestretch.

3. Fear

Is the convention bump turning into a hive?

It’s too early to get a serious read, but the daily tracking polls taken since Saturday show little or no bounce for Obama from the Biden pick or from the convention.

That will likely change after Thursday night’s prime-time speech from the candidate. But delegates have been sharing their jitters that their convention, which has been so consumed by the Clinton-Obama psychodrama, might be losing sight of its twin missions of defining Obama as a president and duct taping McCain to the Bush legacy.

There’s also been some grumbling about the stagecraft in Denver — and how logistical considerations are trumping the delivery of a coherent night-by-night message.

In a piece titled “Is this convention working?” The Guardian’s Mike Tomasky raises a good point when he asks why Republican Jim Leach — a marquee turncoat who deplores the GOP’s free-spending ways — was jammed between Ted Kennedy and Michelle Obama on Monday night at a time “when everyone was going to the bathroom.”

Will the Democrats be able to turn that around tonight?

4. Foreign entanglement

Tonight’s loosely tied themes — foreign affairs, terrorism, Iraq and Afghanistan — are a mixed bag for Obama, who trails McCain badly among security-minded voters.

The roster of speakers will try to thread the needle for Obama: portraying him as a leader who will quickly withdraw from Iraq and stress diplomacy over deployment in future crises — while simultaneously emphasizing his toughness. The speakers include: Retired Army Command Sgt. Major Michele S. Jones, Iraq war vet and Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Murphy and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — the Clinton camper most likely to praise Obama as a 3 a.m. leader.

5. Gay marriage

Folk-rocker Melissa Etheridge — who accused Bill Clinton of throwing gays and lesbians “under the bus” — is a fiery advocate for gay marriage. Barack Obama, who isn’t, thinks civil unions are just as good. Will Etheridge bring up the quintessential GOP wedge issue during her live prime-time performance?

Kenneth P. Vogel, reporting from Denver, contributed to this story.