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Dems seek to sharpen message on eve of convention

From The CNN Political Unit
September 4, 2012 -- Updated 0012 GMT (0812 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: President Obama criticizes Mitt Romney; Paul Ryan compares Obama to Jimmy Carter
  • NEW: Poll shows Romney with a slight lead in North Carolina
  • Joe Biden says America is better off because 'Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive'
  • Ryan precedes Democratic convention with North Carolina rally

Charlotte, North Carolina (CNN) -- Democrats gather for their national convention on Tuesday, seeking to rebuff Republican attacks that the nation is worse off under President Barack Obama by emphasizing both what has been achieved and the further steps necessary to boost a sluggish economic recovery.

The three-day convention concludes Thursday with Obama delivering a nationally televised speech that will serve as a response to last week's Republican convention that nominated Mitt Romney to run against him in November.

Romney's campaign is focused on the question of whether Obama has made life better for Americans, arguing that continued high unemployment and sluggish economic recovery from the recession show White House policies have failed to deliver promised results.

The "better off" strategy was famously employed in 1980 by Ronald Reagan who asked voters that question when running against incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter. Reagan went on to win that campaign, also marked by national economic difficulties.

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden launched their counter-attacks on Monday, telling Labor Day campaign events that the nation was better off than it was in 2009 and that Romney offered nothing new from Republican policies that they said failed in the past.

Noting that Romney recently said the nation needed a "new coach," Obama told a Toledo, Ohio, event that "the problem is everybody's already seen his economic playbook. We know what's in it."

Biden led an effort to sharpen the message of Democrats on the eve of the convention after other senior members struggled to formulate a definitive answer to the question of whether voters should feel better off since Obama took office.

"America is better off today than they left us when they left," Biden told a Labor Day campaign event in Detroit, referring to the state of the nation the Obama administration inherited from the Republican administration of former President George W. Bush.

"You want to know whether we are better off?" Biden said, offering a favorite campaign line. "I've got a better off. Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive!"

Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, kept up the Obama-Carter comparisons, telling a North Carolina crowd that "every president since the Great Depression who asked Americans to send them into a second term could say that you are better off today than you were four years ago, except for Jimmy Carter and for President Barack Obama."

The back-and-forth between the campaigns is part of their competition on how the election gets framed in the minds of voters. Republicans want it to be a referendum on Obama's presidency, while Democrats seek a choice between differing political ideologies on the size and role of government.

A senior Obama campaign official told CNN on Monday that viewers tuning in to the Democratic convention will hear about how specific Obama policies and ideas will bolster the middle class to strengthen economic growth.

"You didn't hear one tangible idea" at the GOP gathering in Tampa, Florida, the official argued.

"The advantage of going second is you get the last word," the official said, adding that Democratic organizers don't need to "tweak" any of their messaging after the Republican gathering.

First lady Michelle Obama will address the Democratic convention's first night, and former President Bill Clinton headlines the second night before Biden and Obama speak on the final night.

The race overall is very close and a new poll on Monday indicated Romney holds a slight advantage in North Carolina. Obama narrowly won the battleground state four years ago, becoming the first Democrat to carry the Tar Heel state in a presidential election since Carter in 1976.

"Your country needs your help," Ryan told the North Carolina crowed on Monday.

Republicans have long sought to portray Obama as unqualified for the challenge of fixing America's ailing economy, and much of last week's GOP convention focused on what they characterized as failed policies of the president that worsened an already bad economy.

"The thrill and pixie dust of the Barack Obama presidency is gone," RNC chairman Reince Priebus told reporters Monday. "There is no hope. ... After four years of Barack Obama we are not better off."

Democratic figures initially struggled Sunday to come up with a definitive answer on whether voters felt that conditions had improved since Obama took office. Republicans pounced when Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley answered "no" to the question on CBS, and other top Democrats also had trouble giving a firm response.

While Obama senior campaign adviser David Axelrod told Fox News, "We're in a better position than we were four years ago," he didn't directly answer the question if voters thought they were better off.

"I think the average American recognizes that it took years to create the crisis that erupted in 2008 and peaked in January of 2009," Axelrod said. "And it's going to take some time to work through it."

Biden and other Democrats had a sharper response on Monday.

O'Malley appeared on CNN to insist that the country as a whole was "clearly better off" since jobs are being created on a monthly basis, rather than lost. But he still stipulated that more work had to be accomplished in reversing what he called the "Bush recession."

Brad Woodhouse, Democratic National Committee communications director, in an appearance on CNN's "Early Start," set the tone for Biden, who spoke at a rally in the hometown of GM, which was rescued by the federal government in 2009.

He likened Obama to a pilot who saves a crashing plane.

"The truth is that the American people know, we were literally a plane, the trajectory was towards the ground. He got the stick and pulled us up out of that decline," Woodhouse said.

CNN's Ashley Killough, Tom Cohen, Adam Aigner-Treworgy, Kevin Liptak, Peter Hamby and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.

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