Jae C. Hong, Associated Press
Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner delivers the keynote address during the Democratic National Convention in Denver late Tuesday.

DENVER — First came Bill Clinton, then Barack Obama.

And now comes Mark Warner, who like those other rising political stars were keynote speakers at previous Democratic national conventions.

Warner, former Virginia governor and current U.S. Senate candidate, told delegates, "You can be soft-hearted or hard-headed; both are going to lead you to the same place: we're all in this together. That's what this party believes. That's what this national believes. That's what Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe. And we can do it."

This is a critical election, because it is an election that will define a new American generation, Warner said.

"This election isn't about liberal versus conservative. It's not about left versus right. It's about the future versus the past. In this election, at this moment, in our history, we know what the problems are," he said. "We know that at this critical juncture, we have only one shot to get it right."

In 1988 Americans watching that year's Democratic convention heard a long-winded Clinton, an Arkansas governor few had seen or heard before. Four years later he was the party's presidential nominee.

In 2004, Obama made a better impression in his keynote speech and in 2008 won his party's nomination.

Tuesday night Warner, 53, was given the honored spot — although Warner and 18,000 people crowded into the Pepsi Center no doubt hope that 2012 brings a second term for President Obama, not the candidacy of Warner, Democratic presidential nominee.

Don't confuse the campaigns this year, Warner said.

"This is not the campaign for the presidency, not the campaign for Congress but the race for the future," he said. "And I believe from the bottom of my heart with the right vision, the right leadership, and the energy and creativity of the American people, there is no nation that we can't outhustle or outcompete. And no American need be left out or left behind."

Toward the end of his life, at the beginning of the 19th century, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to John Adams, said Warner. Jefferson was wondering about the next generation of Americans. "He closed his letter by writing: 'I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.'"

With the candidacy of Obama, "It's our challenge to get it right at the dawn of the 21st," he said. "This race is all about the future. You know, America has never been afraid of the future, and we shouldn't start now. If we choose the right path, every one of these challenges is also an opportunity."

Every American should get a fair shot, he said.

"Barack Obama understands this — because he's lived it," Warner said. "And Barack Obama is running to restore that fair shot for every American. When we look around today, we see that for too many Americans that fair shot is becoming more of a long shot."

E-mail: [email protected]; [email protected]