CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Thousands of festive Democrats converged on North Carolina Monday and prepared to kick off a convention that will focus heavily on persuading middle-class voters that President Obama will look out for their interests if they entrust him with a second term.
In sports, going second often holds an advantage. Democrats hope the same holds true with this campaign season’s back-to-back conventions. Mitt Romney in Tampa, they contend, left ample openings to exploit.
“Now it’s our turn,’’ the chairman of the Democratic National Convention, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, told reporters at a kickoff press conference Monday. “This is a convention that will be a little different.’’
Villaraigosa emphasized the wide diversity of ethnic and racial backgrounds that will be evident among the convention’s delegates. Democrats also are claiming a greater spirit of openness and inclusion than Republicans presented.
The economy promises to be the dominant theme, just as it was in Tampa, but Democrats say they will be advancing a more positive agenda for rebuilding the jobs base. Convention organizers at every opportunity are talking about bolstering the middle class.
The convention will seek to build a story of a president who led the United States out of an unprecedented fiscal crisis, revived the auto industry, and created manufacturing jobs.
Mitt Romney’s campaign was already seeking to undermine that narrative on Monday.
“Middle-class families realize that they are not better off than they were four years ago because the president’s liberal policies have not created jobs or turned around our economy,’’ said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams.
Weather permitting, Obama’s renominating convention will culminate in a Thursday night acceptance speech at Bank of America Stadium, home turf of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. Convention organizers will not say how many people they expect for the event, other than to say the stadium location will allow “tens of thousands’’ of people to participate. The stadium has a capacity of more than 73,000 people. Obama supporters who agreed to spend nine hours volunteering for the campaign are being rewarded with free tickets.
A campaign spokesman said Obama was still working on his speech as he traveled this week, with a campaign stop Monday in Toledo, Ohio, and a trip to view damage and flooding left by Hurricane Isaac in Louisiana. He will arrive in Charlotte on Wednesday.
“We need to lay out the pillars of how we’re going to restore economic security for the middle-class,’’ said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, speaking in Charlotte. “That involves paying down the deficit in a balanced way, that involves building an economy from the middle class, invest in things like education, research and development, and infrastructure.”
Instead of the usual four-day convention, the Democrats have trimmed their lineup of speeches and roll-call votes to just three days. The proceedings will feature a number of Massachusetts political figures, including Governor Deval Patrick and House candidate Joseph Kennedy III on Tuesday; Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren on Wednesday; and Senator John Kerry on Thursday. Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston will also speak.
Monday was reserved for a Labor Day street festival open to the public, dubbed CarolinaFest, which attracted thousands of families to barbecue and cheese steak stands, rows of street vendors, and tents where activists handed out literature and sold hats.
The contrasting conventions could help shape the contours of the presidential race as it enters its final two months. Republican nominee Mitt Romney and the Republicans last week delivered a blistering critique of President Obama’s presidency and his handling of the economy, which has struggled under the weight of high unemployment. They built a theme around the phrase “we built that,’’ a rebuttal to an assertion by Obama that government support has been crucial to successful business enterprises in America.
But the GOP also spent considerable amounts of TV time introducing Romney to a broader audience, seeking to soften his image by discussing his family and his Mormon faith. Clint Eastwood’s odd performance on the night of Romney’s speech — during which he spoke to an empty chair — served as a major distraction and soaked up a large amount of media attention.
Romney appears to have gotten little or no popularity bounce from the convention. Overall, 40 percent of voters in a Gallup poll published Monday said the convention made them more likely to vote for Romney; 38 percent said it made them less likely. The 2-point net positive convention rating was similar to that of recent GOP conventions — 5 points in 2008 and 3 points in 2004 — but was the lowest since Gallup began measuring such bounces.
As Obama campaigned in Ohio yesterday, the Romney campaign sought to capitalize on the statement by a top Obama surrogate that Americans are not better off than they were four years ago.
Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland answered “no” on Sunday when CBS “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer asked if Americans are better off now than they were when Obama took office. O’Malley attempted a quick pivot, declaring “that’s not the question of this election” and pinning the recession, job losses, and budget deficits on George W. Bush. But Representative Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, said Monday in Greenville, N.C., Obama “can’t tell you that you’re better off.’’
Campaigning in Detroit Monday, Vice President Joe Biden insisted the country is in better shape, thanks to Obama.
“You want to know whether we’re better off?” Biden said. “I’ve got a little bumper sticker for you: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”
In addition to their convention’s greater diversity, the Democrats also take pride in the lesser role of business interests in its funding. The Democratic National Convention Committee imposed a ban on corporate and lobbyist contributions to pay for the proceedings. The convention is still accepting in-kind corporate contributions in the form of goods and services, but Democrats are still claiming the higher moral ground.
“If you look at our convention and last week, the president and vice president and all of our speakers will step on a stage built with dollars donated by grass-roots supporters from around the country and not by massive, million-dollar checks from corporations, and that is a big distinction,’’ said Steve Kerrigan, the chief executive of the convention.