By Gary Strauss
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Campaign 2012's rhetoric promises to heat up as the Democratic National Convention opens Tuesday night with the party taking to the national stage to combat the increasingly harsh political salvos of Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
With the November election a virtual toss-up and President Obama's re-election bid hampered by the anemic economy and stubbornly high unemployment, the three-day convention is expected to be less about 2008's message of hope than making sure voters get the message of what's been accomplished and what needs to be done. Another core theme: the sharp contrast between a Romney presidency and four more years of Obama.
In an interview with USA TODAY aboard Air Force One, Obama telegraphed the party's mission this week: defending his record, attacking Romney and convincing voters that America is better off than it was four years ago. The central themes: Obama kept the economy from plunging into recession, bailed out the now revived automobile industry, revamped health care, ended the war in Iraq and gave the orders to eliminate terrorist Osama bin Laden.
"Gov. Romney spent a lot of time talking about himself and he spent a lot of time talking about me. He didn't spend a lot of time talking about the American people and how their lives will get better," Obama told USA TODAY. "I guess their premise is that the American people will be convinced, if we just get rid of Obama, then somehow that will be enough."
The president and aides have acknowledged that Democrats are likely to be outspent by Romney in key battleground states. So the three-day convention amounts to some much-needed PR.
Tonight's prime-time highlight: First lady Michelle Obama, who closes with a 20 minute speech scheduled for 10:35 ET.
"I am going to remind people about the values that drive my husband to do what he has done and what he is going to do for the next four years," Michelle Obama told SiriusXM radio host Joe Madison in a taped interview aired Tuesday. "I am going to take folks back to the man that he was before he was president, because the truth is that he has grown so much -- but in terms of his core character and values, that has not been changed at all."
Newark (N.J.) Mayor Cory Booker will present the party platform at 6 p.m. ET Tuesday. Other prime-time players include Chicago Mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley -- whose "no" answer to a question Sunday on whether Americans are better off now than four years ago made a soundbite pounced on by Republicans.
O'Malley clarified his comment Monday: "None of us would disagree with the fact that we have not yet recovered from the Bush recession," he told USA TODAY and Gannett reporters during a Newsmaker session. "Clearly, we're headed in the right direction."
San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a rising star and Hispanic, will deliver Tuesday night's keynote address. The 37-year-old Castro and his identical twin, Joaquin, have something in common with Obama: They were raised by a single mother and earned Harvard law degrees.
Obama is scheduled to speak Thursday.
Modesto Tico Valle, an Illinois delegate from Chicago, said the convention is key to Obama's re-election.
"Most definitely, President Obama must say loudly and strongly that we are much better off today than four years ago,'' said Valle, the 48-year-old CEO of Halstead, an advocate organization for the lesbian, gay and transgender community. "The economy is slowly recovering from where it was when we got it, jobs are slowly coming back. There has been great progress made in LGBT and women's rights, among seniors and with health care. The choice is clear between Obama and the dark ages. He is the one that is moving us forward."
Democrats released a party platform for ratification Tuesday underscoring Obama's call for higher taxes on the wealthy and support for gay marriage. And Tuesday morning, the party made its case for Obama through U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren on morning TV talk shows. Warren, who is challenging first-term Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, conceded that many Americans have it tough, but said Obama offers the better vision going forward. "Republicans are not helping us get back," she said.
Republican GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, also making the talk show rounds, continued to hammer Obama's record on the economy. "Four years into a presidency and it's incomplete?" he asked. "The president is asking people just to be patient with him?''
Romney's campaign reinforced that message with a new Internet video answering Obama's statement that "There are always going to be bumps on the road to recovery." The video showcases a series of ordinary Americans who've lost their jobs saying, "I'm an American, not a bump in the road."