PHILADELPHIA - With apologies and pleas, Democrats did everything possible to turn the first day of their convention from discord to unity – to emerge looking ahead to a party unified for victory in November.
Late in the evening when Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders emerged, loud applause kept the insurgent candidate from even speaking for several minutes. Delegates who had booed the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency earlier in the day seemed to accept Sanders’ plea to support her against Donald Trump in the November election. They chanted his name and mouthed along with familiar slogans from his campaign rallies even in what seemed to be the last moment of the 74-year-old’s unlikely candidacy.
“Any objective observer will conclude that, based on her ideas and her leadership, Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States. The choice is not even close,” Sanders told the crowd.
On the floor of the convention, there were cheers, but when Sanders spoke to a group of his own supporters earlier, he encountered jeers and boos as he urged that they join Clinton.
At a protest outside the convention hall, hundreds of Sanders supporters held a feisty demonstration, despite the intense Philadelphia heat.
At times, the pro-Bernie rally could be mistaken for an anti-Hillary protest, with demonstrators chanting “lock her up” and holding signs that said “No Oligarchy.”
Even with only one day remaining before the convention would formally nominate Clinton, many Sanders supporters were still not ready to consider the possibility.
“I’m giving Bernie a 100 percent chance until there isn't one,” said Desmond O’Regan from Burbank, California. “I’ll cross that bridge when it explodes.”
In O’Regan’s estimation, Sanders was the victim of a party establishment and broken voting system that was rigged in favor of Clinton from the start.
“They played to her favor and not Bernie’s,” he said. “In my heart, I believe he won every race. I really do.”
Many of the protesters had marched all day from City Hall near downtown and, in the muggy heat, smelled strongly of sweat and marijuana smoke.
Some had come in support of Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, who appeared among protesters and whose campaign platform is very similar to Sanders’.
Democrats are worried that even some support for third party candidates may be enough to tilt the scales in Trump’s favor. But that’s a possibility that the most loyal Sanders fans are ready to accept.
“I’m not afraid of Trump,” said Pat Straker from Meadville, Pennsylvania, who was carrying a sign that read, “Bernie or Jill, Never Hillary or Donald.”
Even he acknowledged that his vote in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania might help deliver the presidency to Trump.
“I don’t like him, but I think Hillary is just as bad as Trump and I don’t believe in choosing between the lesser of two evils,” Straker said.
He also dismissed any accusations that the Sanders campaign was built on unrealistic promises.
“It’s not rainbows and unicorns. It’s what we believe and fight for,” he said. “If we don’t get it, then we don’t get it. But we don’t not fight for it.”
In a text message shortly after the convention began, Sanders asked supporters “as a personal courtesy to me to not engage in any kind of protest on the floor.”
“I belong here, too,” said one young woman sharply, holding aloft a “Bernie for President” sign, as she drew complaints from fellow Oklahoma delegates.
Alex Hulvey, a Virginia delegate, said he was sure some Sanders supporters would leave the process. But, for him, the removal of Democratic National Committee Wasserman Schultz in the wake of leaked DNC emails was enough.
“We’re already seeing a change in leadership, and that’s exactly what we need,” Hulvey said. “From the ground up, changing the Democratic Party and getting in positions of leadership, so the system isn't rigged and fixing it from within.”
He said he would vote for Sanders on the floor, and would still not commit to supporting Clinton in November.
Early in the proceedings, Democratic National Committee officials offered a “deep and sincere apology to Senator Sanders, his supporters and the entire Democratic party for the inexcusable remarks made over email.”
“Debbie is gone – we’re already breaking the cart, you know?” said Diane Lanpher, a delegate from Sanders’ home state of Vermont, using a colloquial phrase to describe a transformation.
“He’s trying to bring that unity piece because the goal from his perspective is that this is just the beginning,” said Lanpher – who attended the Sanders speech.
She spoke approvingly of the Sanders supporters holding to their passion.
“I want those sparks to continue. That’s why it’s important that after Philly the revolution continues – they need to stay engaged. We cannot have them just go.”
Decked out in bright blue Hillary for President regalia, Florida delegate Lucy Huyke Garner saw the day’s disorder as a temporary stumble. She said that some Sanders supporters would avoid voting for Clinton in the fall, "but I don't worry about them. They need to grieve.”