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Can Charlotte glow help Obama?

By Tim Funk and Jim Morrill
tfunk@charlotteobserver.com

More Information

  • Threats against Obama land Charlotte man in jail
  • Can Charlotte glow help Obama?
  • Among the undecided:

    Meredith Figueroa

    Age: 40

    Job: Mary Kay Independent Consultant

    “I watched it. I didn’t really hear anything that spoke to me. I’m swaying more that way (Democratic), but I’m still undecided. I’m really swaying more toward (former President Bill) Clinton.”

    Jaimie McConnell

    Age: 30

    Job: National Account Manager

    “The speeches were great and they were very motivating. If they were 100 percent true, sure, that would be the way to go.”

    Jamaal Abdul-Awwal

    Age: 31

    Status: Unemployed.

    “After watching both conventions I’m more leaning to Democrats. I watched the Republican National Convention; it seemed the overall tone was real negative ... It was almost like they wanted to get into a time machine and go back to the ’80s.”



CHARLOTTE, N.C. Departing Democrats were all smiles Friday as they talked up a Charlotte convention that was high-energy, on-message and erased any talk of an election-year enthusiasm gap favoring the Republicans.

“I have been to every convention since 1968 . . . and this was simply the very best Democratic National Convention we’ve ever had,” said South Carolina’s Don Fowler, a former national party chairman and CEO of the 1988 DNC in Atlanta.

“I think it will send the president off with a good bump. And I think he will win based in many respects on what happened in Charlotte over the last three days.”

But if Fowler’s November prediction comes true, political scientists say it will likely have less to do with any post-convention bounce in the polls than in the Charlotte convention’s success – as a TV show and campaign organizing tool – to excite President Barack Obama’s base.

In a neck-and-neck presidential race where most voters have already made up their minds, energizing supporters so they’ll turn out on Election Day could tell the tale, they say.

Mitt Romney got barely a bounce from last week’s Republican convention. And early Gallup tracking polls indicate Obama may not fare much better.

“We’re in an election where there’s just not a possibility of movement,” said John Dinan, a political scientist at Wake Forest University. “There’s just not a lot of people out there who are undecided who could be persuaded by a convention.”

Instead, the conventions are increasingly judged by how they motivate the partisans in the hall and the like-minded voters watching at home – mostly on Fox during the Republican convention and MSNBC during the Democrats’ gathering.

“These loyal troops are ready to hit the front lines,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. “That’s where this fight is going to be waged, on the ground.”

Stadium change hurts

One of the chief battlegrounds: North Carolina.

Early on, the Obama campaign acknowledged that Charlotte was chosen to host the 2012 convention in hopes it could be a gateway to picking up North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes.

“It was absolutely the right thing to do,” Democratic Party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said. “We were very clear that we wanted to plant a flag in the South and send a signal that we weren’t going to cede any region to the Republicans – including the South.”

The plan was to open and close the convention in Charlotte with public events that would make tens of thousands of N.C. voters – and voters from neighboring Virginia, also a swing state – feel like they were part of the quadrennial event.

Did they pull it off?

Many did show up for CarolinaFest, a Labor Day celebration on Tryon Street that featured volunteers signing up people to vote and booths spilling over with Obama books, buttons and signs.

But the grand finale was to have been Thursday night. That’s when an estimated 80,000 people – most of them N.C. voters and many of them Obama campaign volunteers – were to pour into Bank of America Stadium to see the president give his acceptance speech from the 50-yard-line.

After promising all week that the stadium event was on “come rain or shine,” the Obama campaign and convention organizers announced Wednesday they were moving the speech inside, to Time Warner Cable Arena, where only delegates, donors and special guests would fit.

With a chance of thunderstorms, the organizers said it was a question of safety.

Republicans charged that the real reason was that the Democrats were worried they couldn’t fill that many seats.

But on the convention floor Thursday, N.C. congressional Democrats dismissed that, saying that had many disappointed constituents.

“I had tens of thousands who were coming in buses,” said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., who represents parts of the Triangle.

Is there worry now that the rain may have literally dampened supporters’ enthusiasm in a way that could jeopardize turnout?

No way, Price and the others said.

“Democrats are realistic people; they know we can’t control the weather,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C. “Just having the convention here sent the very helpful statement that Democratic Party believes in North Carolina.”

Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C. said the president would be returning to North Carolina, offering his campaign an opportunity to make it up to the 65,000 who missed the event.

“We’re going to see a lot of President Obama and Michelle Obama and Joe Biden,” Watt said.

The Obama campaign and convention organizers have held out the possibility of a rain check event with the president but have offered no details – or even promises.

Catawba’s Bitzer suggested an Obama campaign still interested in carrying North Carolina would be guilty of political malpractice if it didn’t schedule such an event, say, right before early voting begins in October.

“If we don’t see Barack Obama back in Charlotte in a venue where those people with ‘community credentials’ would be the first in, I would be shocked,” Bitzer said. “In late September or early October, they could say, ‘Your tickets are still good. Come join us.’ ”

New believers sign up

Though these voters are still waiting for their payoff, the Obama campaign has captured all their contact information – making it easy to invite them to donate money, volunteer their time or vote on Election Day.

To guarantee themselves a seat at Bank of America Stadium, 14,500 people volunteered their time . About 75 percent of them were new to the Obama organization.

Having some of the Democratic Party’s biggest stars – and up-and-comers – in town has also given the campaign an opportunity to use this celebrity power to reach out to voter groups that tend to favor the president.

On Friday, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the convention keynoter, traveled to east Charlotte’s Latino community to participate in a voter registration drive.

Saturday, Obama’s North Carolina campaign will try to build on the convention with 500 “Ready to Go!” volunteer events .

The Romney campaign still trails in the number of field offices in North Carolina, but it’s been opening them at a fast clip. N.C. supporters of the former Massachusetts governor will also be out in force on Saturday: Hundreds of “Victory” volunteers are slated to knock on doors and call voters.

Romney’s N.C. campaign spokesman, Robert Reid, said the Charlotte convention disappointed voters because “all we heard was more of the same failed policies that haven’t helped us over the last four years.”

But in the debate that began Friday over which of the party’s conventions was better at energizing their base, even some Republicans say the Democrats in Charlotte outperformed the GOP in Tampa.

Take Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman from Florida who now hosts “Morning Joe” on MSNBC.

“While Obama said nothing new, he said it much better than when Gov. Romney said nothing in Tampa,” Scarborough said. “And you could tell by the boisterous reaction of Democratic delegates who left the arena Thursday night looking fired up and ready to go.”

Funk: 704-358-5703
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