CHARLOTTE, North Carolina—The central event at the Democratic National Convention this week is a foregone conclusion. The party will nominate President Obama for a second term. What is in doubt, but vitally important in determining the outcome of the November election, will be whether the Democrats make a credible case for why Obama should serve another four years despite a sour economy and an electorate that contains many former Obama supporters who are now deeply disappointed with his performance.
Democratic planners are concerned the day after the convention will be marred by a new unemployment report from the Labor Department which is expected to show little or no change in the current 8.3 per cent jobless rate. This would reinforce the GOP message that Obama has not lived up to his central promise from 2008 of bringing hope and change to a dispirited nation. It would similarly prompt Republican nominee Mitt Romney to attack Obama as a continuing failure with no real potential to make the economy better in a second term.
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, told me Monday that the key question in the fall campaign will be, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" Preibus added that the Obama economic agenda "is a whole pile of nothing."
Yet the Democrats' goal is to create momentum and launch President Obama "out of a cannon into the fall campaign," says Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. She told me that the convention will explain how Obama saved the economy from meltdown in 2009, and how he has been creating jobs and strengthening the economy ever since, while she says Romney is offering stale solutions that have failed in the past, such as cutting the taxes of the rich, slashing popular social programs and deregulatiing business.
Obama aides say the president's re-election plan remains essentially the same as it has been for many weeks--to attack Romney as an out-of-touch mega-millionaire who neither understands nor represents the middle class, and to argue that the economy and the nation's other problems would get worse under Romney.
"The advantage of having the second convention is rebuttal," says political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. "And Obama has a lot to rebut." Sabato told my U.S. News colleague Lauren Fox.
"There are really only two speeches that matter—Bill Clinton's and President Obama's," Sabato says." Everything else is window dressing. The GOP has thrown down the gauntlet. Republicans say Obama has flat-out failed. Obama can't credibly claim he's succeeded, given the state of the economy, so he has to force voters to shop comparatively. 'We're on the right track' is one part of Obama's argument; the second is 'Things will be so much worse if you elect Romney.'"
The race between Obama and Romney is essentially tied nationally, according to the latest polls, with little sign of any imminent game changers.
A group of two dozen undecided voters at a focus group in Charlotte Monday afternoon said they were having a hard time making up their minds. Yet they were tuning out the TV ads as too negative or not containing much useful information, and half of them didn't even watch the GOP convention last week. Most also suggested that they probably wouldn't watch the Democrats this week. Republican pollster Frank Luntz, the moderator for the University of Phoenix. said this showed the level of dissatisfaction with both Obama and Romney, and how the outcome of the race could come down to the three presidential debates in October, when the two men can finally be compared face to face.
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Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," on usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column in the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook or Twitter.