The nominee is the same, but this week’s Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., will have a different tone than four years ago in Denver, when Barack Obama was running to become the nation’s first black president and the economy was in a tailspin that would become known as The Great Recession.
In 2008 the message was all about “hope and change” and the party had a decided advantage in the enthusiasm people felt toward Obama compared to his Republican opponent U.S. Sen. John McCain.
This year, Democrats have worried about an enthusiasm gap favoring Republicans, who nominated Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan last week at a convention that showcased young talent such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Among the tasks for Democrats this week is create some buzz around their own candidate who, while still likeable in the eyes of many voters, is in a neck-and-neck race against Romney and actually trails in some polls.
After nearly four years at the helm, Obama has at times disappointed his liberal base, proven unable to bridge the divide between Congressional Republicans and Democrats and has overseen a still-sputtering economic recovery.
Democrats hope this week changes all that as they paint a vivid contrast between the Democratic ticket of Barack Obama and Joe Biden and the newly minted Republican tandem of Romney and Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman with the budget hawk reputation.
“The Democratic National Convention will define the election as a choice between two very different paths for our nation,” said Frank Benenati, spokesman for the Obama campaign.
He said the focus will be on Obama’s plans to create jobs, move the country forward and fight for the middle class.
“It will contrast that with those of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who don’t understand middle class challenges and whose top-down economics would return us to the same failed policies that crashed our economy in the first place,” Benenati said.
Ohio will take center-stage in that comparison, said Mark Owens, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party. He said Democrats will be able to point to improvements in Ohio’s economy that are among the best in the nation, and say the credit goes, not to Republican Gov. John Kasich — who told Republicans last week that it was his policy against Democrat headwinds that accounted for the improved numbers — but to the bailout of the auto industry, a large part of which occurred during the Obama administration.
“In many ways Ohio is the narrative of this campaign as a state that was devastated by the policies that Romney and Ryan want to go back to: tax breaks for the wealthy, incentives for companies shipping their jobs overseas, putting the middle class at the back of the line, not investing in manufacturing,” Benenati said.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said Democrats will talk about ways Obama has succeeded. He said they’ll cite improving job numbers, the Dow Jones Industrial Average doubling since the early months of his term, the killing of Osama bin Laden and dismantling of the al Qaeda network, the Iraq war ending and troops on track to leave Afghanistan, expanded health care through the Affordable Care Act, and the president’s fights for pay equity and access to contraception for women.
“If there wasn’t a half a billion dollars of special interest money funding these Republicans we’d probably be beating them by 25 points,” Redfern said.
About 500 Ohio Democrats — including the 230-member delegation — will be in Charlotte for the convention, which features its own star-studded speaker list: First Lady Michelle Obama,
former President Bill Clinton, and Obama, who speaks Thursday at Bank of America Stadium.
Convention organizers say 6,000 delegates, up from 4,419 in 2008, will participate. They will be far-outnumbered by 15,000 members of the media from across the world.
Just as with the Republicans, the business of the Democratic convention will be nominating the presidential and vice presidential candidates, and adopting a platform. In the Democrats’ case, the platform includes support for gay marriage, a first for a major American party.
“The platform is the document that sets out what your values are, in this case pro-choice, women’s rights, voting rights,” said Owens. “It really plays out your values.”
But the convention’s larger purpose is to enliven the party base and to grab the attention of the less politically interested citizens — among them the once enthusiastic core of supporters who showed up in such convincing numbers in ‘08.
John Green, director of the Ray Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said Obama must use his vaunted rhetorical skills to motivate Democrats “to come out of their convention enthusiastic and excited and ready to do what they need to do.”
Toward that end, Green and Jerry Austin, a Cleveland-based Democratic consultant, said Obama must use his convention speech to make an affirmative case.
Austin said there will be plenty of surrogate speakers preceding Obama to “beat up on Romney and Ryan. So, Obama’s speech has got to be totally positive. He’s got to say, ‘Here’s what I inherited, here’s what we’ve done, we’ve made progress, we’ve turned the corner and we’ve got to stay the course.’ He will be eloquent and it will be enthusiastic.”
That might not be so easy. The struggling economy puts a sitting president in a difficult position, one that virtually guarantees the need to be on the offensive, said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University.
“Since the party has a somewhat modest record to run on, at least in terms of economic success, expect the Democrats to distinguish themselves strongly from Republicans and to argue that the GOP cannot be trusted to care for Americans and their problems,” Smith said.
While Democrats have the advantage of following last week’s Republican convention, giving them a chance to react to what was said there, they also must be careful to avoid missteps, said Nancy Martorano Miller, associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton.
“What they probably need to do is hope no one screws up,” Miller said. “Making sure that something doesn’t get said that can be taken out of context either by the other party or the media. Once something is out there, even if it is a fact that is repudiated, you can’t take it back.
Expect also to see a strong convention focus on women as the Obama campaign attempts to exploit the Republican controversy over Missouri Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin’s remarks about rape and abortion, the Republican party platform opposing abortion in all cases and Republican congressional proposals that would allow employers to limit health insurance coverage of contraceptives.
“It’s a chance for him to present on a national stage his plan for the next four years and inform the voters,” said Jocelyn Bucaro, the Butler County Board of Elections deputy director who is a delegate and a member of the Democratic National Committee. “He will present a vision for the future that is starkly different from the Republicans this week.”
Mary Anne Sharkey, a communications specialist who has worked for both political parties, said Obama has “got to talk about how he stopped the economic slide and that we were on the verge of a deeper recession — maybe even a depression. He’s got to talk about how the auto bailout is important to states like Ohio and Michigan.’’
Added Tom Ritchie, a delegate and director of field services for AFSCME Ohio Council 8:
“I think we need to continue to build the message to the working people that things are going to make a turn. It didn’t happen overnight and it won’t be fixed overnight,” Ritchie said. “You get on message and you stay on message.”
Jack Torry of the Washington Bureau and Joe Hallett of the Columbus Dispatch contributed to this report.
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