TUCSON, Ariz. -- Thousands lined up for almost 24 hours to attend a special memorial event honoring the victims and survivors of Saturday's mass shooting.
Shortly before 2 p.m., University of Arizona officials said the line had already reached the point where McKale Center, with its capacity for 14,000, would be full. The university was working on diverting the overflow crowd to a viewing area at nearby Arizona Stadium.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are en route to Tucson to attend the event, called "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America." Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano will also be there, as will Sen. John McCain, who cut short a congressional trip to Latin America.
Many are looking to the president to provide healing and promote a spirit of unity in the wake of the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in a mass shooting that left six people dead and 13 more wounded, including Giffords.
While aides were reluctant to discuss the president's speech before it was finalized, they did say it will focus on the lives of the victims -- how they lived rather than how they died -- and the actions of the heroes who helped stop the gunman.
Passionate discussions about divisive political rhetoric and what role it might have played in the shooting have been prevalent in recent days, but it’s not likely that any commentary on the need for political civility will find its way into the president's speech.
Rather, Obama is expected to memorialize the six people who were killed, offer words of comfort to the 13 who were wounded, and praise the courage of those who intervened.
"It's going to be important, I think, for the country as a whole, as well as the people of Arizona, to feel as if we are speaking directly to our sense of loss, but also speaking to our hopes for the future and how out of this tragedy we can come together as a stronger nation," the president said Tuesday.
Virtually every president has had to act as chief consoler to the country at some time during his term in office. This will not be the first time Obama has stepped into that role, offering sympathy, empathy and reassurance.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are joined by government employees on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 10, 2011, to observe a moment of silence for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and the other victims of an assassination attempt against her.
He led the memorial at the Fort Hood Army post in November 2009, speaking to a stunned national after a mass shooting there left 13 people dead and 29 wounded.
In April 2010, Obama eulogized 29 coal workers killed in the worst mine accident in a generation. He said they lived as they died, pursuing the American Dream.
"When the people can hear the president of the United States talk about their neighbor, their husband, their daughter, it is incredibly comforting and uplifting at the same time," said Kevin Sullivan, who served as communications director for President George W. Bush in his second term, a period during which a mass shooting at Virginia Tech shook the nation.
"This is about the grief of the victims and the families who have been affected," Sullivan said. "There should be no element of political commentary ...."
"Together We Thrive: Tucson and America" is free and open to the public. There are 14,000 seats available in McKale Center, as well as overflow areas.
The memorial, which will feature speeches, a Native American blessing and various readings, begins at 6 p.m. Doors open at 4p.m. Security is expected to be extremely tight. Attendees will be screened and no backpacks, large purses, laptops, food or liquids will be permitted.
Sun Tran is offering free shuttle rides starting at 2 p.m. Buses will be available in the northeast parking lot of El Con Mall and at Hi Corbett Field.