CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Bill Clinton offered some of his luster to the Democratic National Convention with a prime-time address today even as an uncertain weather forecast forced President Barack Obama to scale back plans for a grand acceptance speech before a throng of 74,000 at an outdoor stadium on the convention’s final night.
With thunderstorms on the horizon, convention officials announced Obama would accept his party’s nomination indoors Thursday night at the Time Warner Cable Arena, which accommodates closer to 20,000 people. The president planned a national conference call Thursday to talk with those who won’t be admitted into the smaller hall.
Convention CEO Steve Kerrigan said Thursday’s session was moved “to ensure the safety and security of our delegates and convention guests.” But GOP spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski cast it as Democrats downgrading the event “due to lack of enthusiasm.”
“Problems filling the seats?” she asked in a statement.
The shift ensured there would be no repeat of the spectacular scene from 2008, when Obama accepted the Democratic nomination in a packed-to-the-gills, 84,000-seat stadium in Denver, complete with ivory columns on the 50-yard line. Republicans mocked it as “The Temple of Obama.”
Clinton’s speech will be a high point in a checkered relationship between two men who sparred, sometimes sharply, in the 2008 primaries, when the ex-president was supporting wife Hillary’s campaign for the nomination. She’ll be worlds away this time — in distance and substance. Obama’s secretary of state, midway through an 11-day tour of the Asia-Pacific region, should be in East Timor by the time her husband speaks.
Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor who served under both Bill Clinton and Obama, made the rounds of morning talk shows Wednesday to trace a connection between the two presidents, speaking of “similar values, similar policies and similar objectives.”
Clinton “can do nothing but help” Obama, Emanuel said, rejecting any notion that Clinton’s ability to get things done and work with Republicans would somehow diminish perceptions of Obama.
But former Republican New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, writing in the New Hampshire Union Leader, said Clinton’s speech “will serve to remind the world of a time when the leadership of the Democratic Party took fiscal responsibility seriously. It might even induce nostalgia for the days of balanced budgets and bipartisan accomplishments such as welfare reform.”
If Day 2 of the Democrats’ convention was all about grabbing some of Clinton’s luster, opening day was designed to portray Obama as someone who understands the problems of ordinary people.
Michelle Obama played those cards with force in a speech declaring that after four years as president, her husband is still the man who drove a rust-bucket on early dates, rescued a coffee table from the trash and knows the struggles of everyday Americans because he lived them in full.
“I have seen firsthand that being president doesn’t change who you are. No, it reveals who you are,” the first lady said to lusty cheers Tuesday night in a deeply personal, yet unmistakably political testimonial.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had no public schedule during the Democrats’ convention.
But running mate Paul Ryan kept up his running criticism of the Democrats, saying the convention’s first day was “what you expect when you have a president who cannot run on his record.”
“What you did not hear is that people are better off than they were four years ago,” he said on Fox News.
The GOP released a new Web video showcasing the story of a man who lost his job and got back on his feet through the welfare-to-work requirements enacted under Clinton. Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus said Obama was gutting the work requirements, “holding back the prosperity of so many who are scraping to get by.”
Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, making the case for Obama’s economic policies in an appearance on MSNBC, said the president has a strong argument to make that people are doing better, but she acknowledged that “Americans are sitting around the breakfast table trying to figure out to make ends meet, so we have work to do.”
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, spoke at a breakfast with Iowa delegates on Wednesday and urged party activists to get fully behind Obama in the next two months.
“Last night when you looked around that convention floor, you saw America. You saw the diversity of our country which is our greatest strength. You saw the hope of our country which is our greatest promise. We have 60 days to turn to our neighbors, to find common ground, to appeal to their good intentions and to create a country of more by re-electing Barack Obama president of the United States.”
Mrs. Obama didn’t mention Romney in her remarks. But there was no mistaking the contrast she was drawing when she laid out certain values, “that how hard you work matters more than how much you make, that helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself.”
Polling gives Obama a consistent advantage over Romney as the more empathetic and in-touch leader. But the sputtering economy is the topmost voter concern and Obama’s highest mountain to climb after more than 42 months of unemployment surpassing 8 percent, the longest such stretch since the end of World War II. No president since the Great Depression has been re-elected with joblessness so high.
Recalling life before Washington, Mrs. Obama spoke of the “guy who’d picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger-side door.” She described a marriage of kindred spirits, both from humble roots, and said the president’s work on health care, college loans and more all come from that experience. “These issues aren’t political” for him, she said. “They’re personal.”
“Barack knows what it means when a family struggles,” she said. “He knows what it means to want something more for your kids and grandkids.”
The first lady took the stage as the most popular figure in this year’s presidential campaign. Michelle Obama earns higher favorability ratings than her husband, Romney, his wife, Ann, or either candidate for the vice presidency, according to the latest Associated Press-GfK poll. And views of Mrs. Obama tilt favorably among independents and women, two focal points in her husband’s campaign for re-election.