By JULIE PACE AND CALVIN WOODWARD, ASSOCIATED PRESS
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 and get them to come out on Election Day.
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 big boost in polls that have long signaled a close race.
"We've always believed that there's very little elasticity in the election," said Plouffe, up early to preview the president's speech on morning talk shows, adding: "You're not going to see big bounces in this election. 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 under the roof of the convention arena, holding 15,000. That meant no opportunity to reprise 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.
The GOP keeps nudging Obama 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."
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 convention appearance and making for a spirited ending to a trying day for Democrats.
After passing their platform a day earlier in a smoothly scripted show of unity, Democrats reopened it Wednesday to restore a reference to God that had been stripped out in earlier deliberations.
Republican rival Mitt Romney called quick attention to the omission, branding it as evidence that the Democrats are a "party that is increasingly out of touch with the mainstream." White House aides said Obama himself ordered the party to get God back in. The platform also was altered to declare that Jerusalem "is and will remain the capital of Israel," a view at odds with a carefully neutral U.S. policy but in tune with campaign sensibilities.
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," Democratic Rep. Sam Farr of California 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 chairman of the Democratic party 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 warm-up speeches by the first lady and 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."
"As another president once said, `There they go again,'" Clinton said, paraphrasing Ronald Reagan, who often uttered "There you go again" as a rebuke to Democrats.
"In Tampa," said Clinton, "the Republican argument against the president's re-election was pretty simple: We left him a total mess, he hasn't finished cleaning it up yet, so fire him and put us back in."
Clinton's speech marked the seventh consecutive convention in which he has spoken to party delegates, and the latest twist in a relationship with Obama that has veered from frosty to friendly. The two men clashed in 2008, when Obama outran Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former president's wife, for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton, then a New York senator and now Obama's secretary of state, was in East Timor as the party met but made a cameo appearance on the huge convention screens in a video that celebrated the 12 Democratic female senators now in office.