Michelle Obama steals limelight as Democrats call for unity behind Hillary Clinton


America's first lady Michelle Obama stole the show on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention as she delivered a well-aimed speech to unite the party's support behind Hillary Clinton.

The start of the convention had threatened to be overshadowed by the anger of Bernie Sanders supporters - following leaked e-mails suggesting the party had favoured Clinton in the primaries - with several hundred people outside the convention hall marching down Philadelphia's sweltering streets with signs carrying messages such as "Never Hillary".

Supporters of Bernie Sanders
(John Minchillo/AP)

Inside the hall there were chants of "Bernie" while they booed Clinton the first several times her name was mentioned.

But the mood settled when Sanders himself made an impassioned plea for Democrats to get behind Clinton's bid to be the nation's next president.

Obama then took centre stage as she too endorsed Clinton and, while she has spent the majority of her eight years in the White House avoiding political fights, took numerous swipes at Donald Trump, while avoiding mentioning him by name.

First Lady Michelle Obama waves as she speaks to delegates during the first day of the Democratic National Convention
(Matt Rourke/AP)

"This election and every election is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives," she said.

"There is only one person I trust with that responsibility, only one person I believe is truly qualified to be president of the United States, and that is Hillary Clinton."

She warned that the White House could not be in the hands of someone with "a thin skin or a tendency to lash out" or someone who tells voters the country can be great again.

First Lady Michelle Obama
(Paul Sancya/AP)

"This, right now, is the greatest country on earth," she said.

Seeking to bridge deep Democratic divides, Sanders endorsed former rival Clinton as a champion for the same economic causes that enlivened his supporters, signalling it was time for them to support her in the campaign against Republican White House candidate Trump.

"Any objective observer will conclude that, based on her ideas and her leadership, Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States," Sanders declared in a headlining address on the opening night of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia.

Former Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders
(J Scott Applewhite/AP)

Sanders and Clinton aides joined forces before the convention to try to ease tension, which came after the resignation of party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz following the leaked emails.

Wasserman Schultz's departure was not initially enough to quell the anger of supporters.

But Clinton's campaign quickly added more Sanders supporters to the speaker line-up and Sanders sent urgent messages asking them not to protest.

Former Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders
(John Locher/AP/PA)

By the time Sanders took the stage for the night's closing address, much of the anger had been overshadowed by speeches promoting party unity. He did his part, imploring his supporters to consider a country under Trump's leadership.

"If you don't believe this election is important, if you think you can sit it out, take a moment to think about the Supreme Court justices that Donald Trump would nominate and what that would mean to civil liberties, equal rights and the future of our country," he said.

Clinton's husband, former US president Bill Clinton, watching from the audience, leapt to his feet and applauded, as did most of the delegates filling the convention arena.

Former president Bill Clinton applauds
(Paul Sancya/AP)

Sanders spoke just after Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, a favourite of liberals who has emerged as one of the Democrats' toughest critics of Trump.

"Donald Trump has no real plans for jobs, for college kids, for seniors," she said in the keynote address. "No plans to make anything great for anyone except rich guys like Donald Trump."

Campaigning in North Carolina, Trump seemed to revel in the Democrats' commotion, telling supporters that Clinton made a mistake by not choosing a more liberal running mate to appease Sanders's base.

Donald Trump
(Evan Vucci/AP)

"Crazy Bernie's going crazy right now," he said.

But in Philadelphia, delegates waved "Love Trumps Hate" signs and cheered as immigration supporters, gay rights advocates, and union leaders took the stage.

Trump was a frequent target throughout the night, though the jabs were often more mocking than mean. The tone was a sharp contrast to the Republican convention, where the attacks against Clinton were bitingly personal, including chants of "Lock her up".