Democrats need a good convention. Obama’s political vulnerabilities are clear and rival Mitt Romney’s opportunities obvious. Charlotte can’t be a reenactment of Denver in 2008. But anything that conveys a loss of hope, disappointment in the president or a slackening of enthusiasm will be magnified manyfold by the media assembled here this week.
The contest remains a statistical tie nationally. Romney didn’t get a noticeable boost in the polls from his convention. But he did use his gathering to improve his image, even if that was primarily among Republicans. If Obama can do better than that, if he can move the polls a few points with his convention, he will begin the final phase of the race in better shape than many expected.
It’s far too soon to make judgments about the overall impact of this convention, but the contrast with the beginning of the Republican gathering in Tampa last week was palpable. That’s why Tuesday’s start was important.
In Tampa, the opening night was marked by a lack of energy on the floor. The aisles in the arena were wide open. Delegates talked among themselves throughout almost all the speeches, other than those by Ann Romney and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
One measure: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker received hearty applause when he was introduced, reflecting his widespread popularity in the party. But he rarely roused the crowd once he began speaking and exited the stage to much milder adulation.
If the enthusiasm in Tampa was mostly anti-Obama rather than pro-Romney, it was different in Charlotte. On Tuesday, the floor was alive with energy. People crowded into every space available. The Obama convention team had distributed placards and signs to augment the messages from different speakers, and they were used to good effect when both Michelle Obama and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro delivered their prime-time addresses.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, never given to understatement, offered a predictably bullish assessment of opening night. “We had more energy in one night than [Republicans] had in four,” he said at a Wednesday breakfast held by The Washington Post and Bloomberg News.
Discounting for partisan cheerleading (and the fact that Republicans had only three nights in Tampa because of a hurricane threat), Emanuel managed to sum up something that was unmistakable to anyone roaming the floor at the Time Warner Cable Arena on Tuesday night.
But there was much more than optics and good signage that helped Democrats begin a convention that is being conducted in the shadow of what took place four years ago in Denver.
The program included a video tribute to the late senator Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) that morphed into an anti-Romney ad, featuring footage from a Kennedy-Romney debate in 1994 when Kennedy demolished his challenger and put his reelection campaign on a path to victory.
Most speakers in Tampa seemed hesitant to criticize Obama harshly. In Charlotte, the speakers on the undercard roused the delegates with sharp attacks on Romney.
Former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, a victim of the Republican tsunami two years into Obama’s presidency, was full-throated in his assault. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick had the audience cheering as he went after Romney’s record as governor there.
Other speakers dealt with other business. Emanuel, Obama’s first White House chief of staff, defended the administration’s early record. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley engaged delegates with a series of “forward” and “back” lines that drove one of the main themes of contrast that the president’s campaign has worked on all summer.
Those speeches reflected different parts of an overall message and served as a prelude to the evening’s two major speakers. Castro’s keynote address delivered, both in content and execution. He made his case against Romney more directly and effectively than Christie made his against Obama a week earlier. He defended Obama more directly and effectively than Christie defended Romney.
He used humor and timing to skewer the Republican nominee. But he also used direct language to go after Romney, GOP vice presidential running mate Paul Ryan and their fellow Republicans. “The Romney-Ryan budget doesn’t just cut public education, cut Medicare, cut transportation and cut job training,” he said. “It doesn’t just pummel the middle class — it dismantles it. It dismantles what generations before have built to ensure that everybody can enter and stay in the middle class.”
Michelle Obama — who spoke as a first lady, a wife and a mother — gave a passionately personal speech about her husband, their family and a set of values that are at the heart of the contrast Democrats want to draw with Republicans.
She never mentioned Romney but didn’t have to, because she was hardly subtle in trying to convey that her husband is more closely connected to the lives of ordinary people than the GOP nominee is. “Barack knows the American dream because he’s lived it,” she said, “and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity.”
The president’s speech on Thursday night will determine how successful the Democratic convention turns out to be. And with the electorate as settled as it is in its division over the choice in November, it’s more likely than not that the presidential race in two weeks will look about the way it does now. But Democrats’ opening night program will be remembered.
For more Dan Balz columns, go to postpolitics.com.