CHARLOTTE, N.C. By midday Friday, the vanguard of national press was already dribbling into town from Tampa, Fla., 600 miles south.
CNN chartered a plane to carry its 100 staffers and equipment. Wolf Blitzer, working on four hours of sleep, anchored his afternoon newscast on CNN from Charlotte and Gwen Ifill broadcast Washington Week in Review from UNC Charlottes campus.
Hundreds of hours of coverage will pour from Charlotte during the next week and the city itself is expected to be a character in the Democratic National Convention narrative. As a financial center, it is symbolic of the economic crisis. With unemployment in the Carolinas among the highest in the nation, it is emblematic of the slow recovery. And being in a key swing state, it represents the undecided voters who likely will sway the election come November.
Thats why the Democratic Party picked North Carolina for its convention, says Norah ODonnell, the White House correspondent for CBS and one of thousands of journalists headed to Charlotte. They knew North Carolina was Obamas smallest margin of victory in 2008. If Barack Obama can win North Carolina again, it will become almost impossible for Mitt Romney to become president.
Charlotte is symbolic of exactly the kind of city that Barack Obama must convince if he is to win. However, no president has won re-election since FDR with an unemployment rate above 7.2 percent. National unemployment is 8.3 percent, and its been above 8 percent except for the first month of his term. That is the headwind the president is facing.
N.C.s swing status
National reporters say they will be watching several important issues expected to develop during the Charlotte convention including jobs, the size of government and health care.
Jim Acosta, a CNN national correspondent who has been covering the Romney campaign, finds it interesting that the polls arent good for Obama in the host state, which has lagged others in economic recovery.
I think that will be part of the narrative why is he losing North Carolina, what is happening in North Carolina or other places that explain why he is not connecting with some voters, Acosta says. You never want to hold a convention in a state youre not going to hold on to, but thats what the Democrats are facing this year.
Part of CNNs coverage plan is to hold focus groups with undecided North Carolina voters recruited by a polling firm, says Sam Feist, the networks political director and Washington bureau chief. They will be interviewed on different shows for their reactions to how the speeches are playing and offer a perspective on key swing votes.
Im going to be looking for this election to come down to a relative handful of voters in a handful of states, people who are ambivalent about the president but have not decided about Mitt Romney, says Jake Tapper, ABC News White House correspondent.
What will the message be to them, particularly about the economy? Thats the grand challenge for the president.
Neal Carruth, NPRs election director, says a big storyline in the networks political coverage has been what the candidates think about the role of government in bringing about economic recovery, and expects it to be a consequential issue in at the DNC.
Im confident youll see a strong reaction to that in Charlotte, Carruth says. NPR will use WFAE-FM (90.1) reporter Julie Rose to do a package about Charlotte for the network that explains the citys significance and introduces it to a national audience.
Shes going to look at what Charlotte wants to tell the world about itself and peel back the curtain a bit about the real Charlotte, Carruth says. And there will be other ways in which the city is woven into coverage.
John Roberts, a national correspondent for Fox News Channel who has been covering conventions since 1996, says he expects the tenor of attacks on the Republicans to be shrill. Already this year, he says, negative political advertising has reached extreme levels.
Theres a race to define the opponent before the opponent has a chance to define him or herself. Obamas people want to define Mitt Romney as an uncaring businessman only interested in making money, and Paul Ryan as not caring about senior citizens. Romney, on the other hand, is portraying Obama as out of touch and cant create jobs, cant get the economy under control.
How conventions play on TV
Michael Clemente, vice president of news for Fox, says one of the key elements of his networks coverage in Charlotte will be fact checking various claims. Producers, researchers and reporters are responsible for digging into the rhetoric and evaluating them for accuracy.
As conventions have grown into carefully scripted infomercials for the campaigns, the question is often asked about whether they still matter as news events.
Judy Woodruff, who covered her first convention in 1972 and is co-anchoring PBSs gavel-to-gavel coverage, says they are not as exciting as they used to be in the days of smoke-filled rooms and backroom brokers, but they provide a key role in formally introducing the candidates to the voters and deserve attention.
I do not think it is asking too much for the American people to pay attention a few days every four years to see what is going on, she says. Its not too much to ask you to spend a few hours over the course of a very few days to look at what these parties believe and where they want to take the country. I know that sounds a little corny, but thats what I think.