CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Don't expect President Barack Obama to try to reinvent himself next week at the Democratic Party's national convention. Instead, he and a slew of his defenders will seek to convince voters to stick with the president they know rather than gamble on someone new, a challenging task given that most Americans say the country is heading in the wrong direction.
"This Thursday, I will offer you what I believe is a better path forward, a path that grows this economy, creates more jobs and strengthens the middle class," Obama said Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa, previewing his pitch. "And the good news is, you get to choose which path we take."
While Democratic loyalists will fill the stadium where Obama accepts the nomination Thursday night, the president's target audience is the small sliver of undecided voters in battleground states who will be critical to the outcome of what polls show is a tight race with two months to go. His campaign also will try to revive some of its insurgent, grassroots appeal from 2008 by using technology to let people participate in the convention. That effort also will help Obama's team collect more data on voters.
Starting Tuesday, a parade of high-profile speakers will stand on a blue-carpeted stage in Charlotte's Time Warner Cable Arena to vouch for Obama's economic agenda, which his team says is focused on the middle class: ending tax cuts for the rich and reducing the debt, while spending more on education, energy and infrastructure. Several voters — called "American Heroes" by Obama's team — also will speak at and appear in videos at the convention, putting a human face on Obama's program.
The Democratic convention starts less than a week after Republicans gathered in Tampa, Fla., to nominate Mitt Romney as the party's presidential candidate. Democrats hope that by holding their convention second, Obama can emerge with momentum on his side as the race for the White House bounds into its final stretch.
Obama will largely be responsible for generating that momentum. He will close the convention Thursday night with a speech in an outdoor football stadium, just as he did in 2008. Mindful of the comparisons to four years ago, Obama's campaign is scrambling to ensure that the 74,000-seat stadium is filled to capacity. The largest crowd Obama has drawn during the 2012 campaign is about 14,000 people, far less than the jaw-dropping crowds he attracted in the 2008 campaign.
As in 2008, the campaign will use the large gathering to register voters and recruit new volunteers through text messaging and Twitter.
Aides say Obama won't ignore the economic woes that have defined his four years in the White House. But they say he plans to focus largely on the future, and why he believes his policies will succeed in a second term. Obama isn't expected to outline any new policy proposals. Instead, he plans to make the case for continuing what he has started. And he is expected to double down on agenda items, like immigration and tax reforms, that gained little traction during his four years in office.
"When the convention is over, folks with be left with a clear road map of where he thinks America needs to go," said Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager. "And it will be clear what his focus will be in an Obama second term."
Working against Obama: the nation's 8.3 percent unemployment rate, sluggish economic growth and fears the economy could slip back into a recession.
There's also a general malaise. An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted earlier this month showed 60 percent of registered voters say the country is heading in the wrong direction, while just 35 percent say it is heading in the right direction.
The convention opens Tuesday with first lady Michelle Obama, whose popularity far surpasses her husband's, as a featured speaker. San Antonio, Texas, Mayor Julian Castro also is slated for that night. He will be the first Hispanic to deliver the Democratic convention's keynote address. Their roles on the convention's opening night are part of Democrats' efforts to shore up support among women and Hispanics, two crucial voting blocs where Obama holds an advantage over Romney.
Mrs. Obama is expected to make the case that Obama is the best candidate to advocate on behalf of the middle class because he has experienced their struggles himself.
Many voters already have heard Mrs. Obama's stories about her husband being raised by a single mother and his grandparents or having struggled to pay off student loans.
But she is emphasizing them again in this campaign in hopes of drawing a contrast with Romney's privileged upbringing.
Polls show voters think Obama understands the economic issues that are important to them better than Romney, even though the Republican has an edge on who voters believe is better suited to manage the economy.
Former President Bill Clinton, who is emerging as one of the campaign's most effective surrogates, will headline the convention Wednesday and formally nominate Obama. He hopes to remind voters of the flush economy he presided over and make the case that Obama's policies will lead to similar results.
Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry will address the large stadium crowd Thursday night before Obama speaks.
Kerry, seen as a potential second-term secretary of state under Obama, will try to capitalize on the Democratic Party's rare advantage on national security issues. He is expected to trumpet Obama's decision to order the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the president's plan to end the Afghanistan war, a sharp contrast to Republicans who rarely mentioned the war during their convention or the tens of thousands of troops still engaged in combat.
Obama picked Charlotte as his convention site in part to help boost his chances of holding onto North Carolina, a state he moved into the Democratic column in 2008 for the first time in decades. Democrats acknowledge that the political landscape in North Carolina has shifted back toward the Republicans, though they hope the convention will help them reverse that course.
"We know that Republicans want to win it back," Cutter said. "But that's one of the reasons we chose Charlotte to host the convention. It's a pretty big investment in that state, and it gives us an advantage."
Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, will seek to steal some of the spotlight from Democrats when he campaigns in Greensboro, N.C., on Monday. Romney will spend next week preparing for debates. He has no public events scheduled.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC.