CHARLOTTE, N.C. — President Barack Obama goes before the Democratic National Convention and the nation on Thursday for a capstone speech designed not just to persuade undecided voters to swing his way in a tight election but to put fire in the belly of his supporters.
Obama senior adviser David Plouffe promised the president would give voters "a very clear sense of where he thinks the country needs to go economically, the path we need to take." But he also cautioned that no one should expect Obama to slingshot out of his convention with a huge boost in polls that have long signaled a close race.
"You're not going to see big bounces in this election," said Plouffe, up early to preview the president's speech on morning talk shows. He added: "For the next 61 days, it's going to remain tight as a tick."
Citing a chance of thunderstorms, convention organizers scrapped plans for Obama to speak to an enormous crowd in a 74,000-seat outdoor stadium and decided to shoehorn the event into the convention arena, which accommodates 15,000.
That means no reprise of the massive show of support, excitement — and on-scene voter registration — from Obama's 2008 acceptance speech before 84,000 in Denver. Republicans said Democrats made the switch because they feared the sight of empty seats.
Obama planned to hold an afternoon conference call with the tens of thousands of supporters bumped from the guest list when the speech was moved indoors, and campaign officials said they would try to arrange for those who had stadium tickets to attend another Obama event before Election Day.
Skies over downtown Charlotte were overcast Thursday morning, and the forecast gave a 40 percent chance of showers in the afternoon, leaving a potential opening for second-guessers.
In an election in which the economy is the top issue to voters, the president got some encouraging news from new reports that the number of people seeking unemployment benefits fell by 12,000 last week, and that businesses stepped up hiring in August.
Among those giving warm-up speeches for the president Thursday night: Vice President Joe Biden and actress Eva Longoria.
Longoria, appearing on NBC's "Today," said she's "been in the trenches" for Obama defending his record and promised her speech will be very different from Clint Eastwood's meandering remarks to the Republicans a week earlier.
"No empty chairs," she promised, a reference to Eastwood's conversation with an empty chair representing Obama.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was speaking too, and he gave voice to the Democrats' nervousness about the GOP advantage in fundraising during a morning interview on CNN, citing the dollars pouring in from Republican-leaning super PACs.
"We've got 17 angry, old, white men who are pouring in millions of dollars, carpet bombing every candidate in sight," Durbin said.
First lady Michelle Obama aimed to help the Democrats catch up, appearing at a private meeting of Obama's national finance committee.
Even as the president asks voters to stick with him, Mitt Romney and the Republicans keep nudging Obama's supporters to rethink their allegiance to a president seeking re-election in a time of weak economic growth.
The party released a new ad Thursday called "The Breakup," in which a woman tells the president: "This just isn't working ... You're not the person I thought you were. ... I think we should just be friends."
On Obama's big day, Romney was in Vermont and had no public schedule. He was preparing for the fall debates and planned to drive back to his home in New Hampshire in the afternoon.
Former President Bill Clinton set up Obama's speech with a rollicking turn on the stage Wednesday in which he offered a strong defense of the president's economic stewardship.
"He inherited a deeply damaged economy, put a floor under the crash, began the long hard road to recovery and laid the foundation for a more modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs," said Clinton — the last president to see sustained growth, in the 1990s. "Conditions are improving and if you'll renew the president's contract, you will feel it."
Clinton also preached bipartisanship and a pullback from politics as "blood sport" — this near the end of back-to-back conventions that feasted on rhetorical red meat and even as he ripped the Republican agenda as a throwback to the past, a "double-down on trickle-down" economics that assumes tax cuts for the wealthy will help everyone down the ladder.
Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod, also appearing on morning talk shows, said Clinton's speech had set out the economic choices, "so now the president can talk about the future having some of that underbrush out of the way."
Obama watched Clinton's speech from backstage, then strolled out and embraced him, bringing happy roars from the crowd in his first appearance at the convention.
It was no accident the president devoted many stops on a pre-convention tour of battleground states to campus crowds of the sort that lifted him to the Democratic nomination and the presidency last time.
"Barack's challenge here is to sort of wake up America and make them realize how serious this election is," Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., said in an interview at the convention. Judging from his town hall meetings in August, when only 15 or 20 people showed up instead of the usual hundreds, there is a "big apathy about politics right now," regardless of party.
Farr added: "If we have an apathetic America, I'm terrified."
Former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, a past Democratic Party chairman who appeared on "CBS This Morning," said he's still worried "about the base turning out to the degree they did" for Obama in 2008. He cited the battleground states of North Carolina and Virginia in particular.
Speaking of the convention speeches delivered by the first lady and the former president, Rendell added: "The beauty of Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton is they stoked the base."
Motivation was not an issue in the convention hall, at least not when Clinton spoke.
The hall rocked with cheers as Clinton strode onstage to Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop," his 1992 campaign theme song, and he held the crowd rapt as he drifted off his prepared remarks for about 50 minutes.
He accused Republicans of proposing "the same old policies that got us into trouble in the first place" and led to a near financial meltdown. Those, he said, include efforts to provide "tax cuts for higher-income Americans, more money for defense than the Pentagon wants and ... deep cuts on programs that help the middle class and poor children."
Woodward reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Ben Feller, Ken Thomas, Matt Michaels and Jim Kuhnhenn in Charlotte; Jennifer Agiesta, Jack Gillum and Josh Lederman in Washington; Kasie Hunt in Vermont and Thomas Beaumont and Steve Peoples in Iowa contributed to this report.
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