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Pre-Convention Tussle: Are Americans Better Off?

A view of the stage as workers continue to setup during preparations for the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 3, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Justin Sullivan
A view of the stage as workers continue to setup during preparations for the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 3, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In an overnight reversal of rhetoric, President Barack Obama's top allies insisted Monday that Americans are surely better off than four years ago despite a slow economic recovery and joblessness of 8.3 percent. Republicans countered that the president has failed on the fundamental question of this election.

On Labor Day, Republican Mitt Romney said in a statement: "For far too many Americans, today is another day of worrying when their next paycheck will come."

"We're worse off," declared Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus, speaking on CNN in the warm-up to the Democratic National Convention. "There's half a million more people unemployed today than three or four years ago, not to mention the under-employed, people who aren't making what they should make."


Obama, for his part, sought to highlight the economic gains of the past four years by visiting with Toledo autoworkers before heading to Louisiana to survey damage from Hurricane Isaac. He sat down to breakfast with three workers before a scheduled address at a United Auto Workers rally, underscoring the turnaround of the U.S. auto industry on his watch.

Vice President Joe Biden seconded the message at a Labor Day rally in Detroit and put the blame for the country's economic woes squarely on the Republicans, declaring, "America is better off today than they left us when they left."

Then he struck up a chant: "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."

Democratic supporters went into overdrive to put a glossy sheen on economic progress after offering a more muddled message over the weekend about whether Americans are better off under Obama.

"Absolutely," said Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager, speaking on NBC's "Today" show. "By any measure the country has moved forward over the last four years. It might not be as fast as some people would've hoped. The president agrees with that."


Martin O'Malley, Maryland's Democratic governor, had answered the same question with a "no" on Sunday before turning the blame to Obama's Republican predecessor. Appearing Monday on CNN, O'Malley tried a more positive turn of phrase, saying: "We are clearly better off as a country because we're now creating jobs rather than losing them. But we have not recovered all that we lost in the Bush recession. That's why we need to continue to move forward" under Obama.

Democrats have plenty of convincing to do.

In the most recent Associated Press-GfK poll, 28 percent said they were better off than four years ago, while 36 percent said they were worse off and 36 percent said they were in about the same financial position.

While the official convention program doesn't start until Tuesday, delegations were gathering across Charlotte on Monday for state breakfasts and a festival in downtown Charlotte hosted by the Democrats featuring singer James Taylor and actor Jeff Bridges.

At a breakfast with the Iowa delegation, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the chair of the convention, told about 60 members of the state's contingent that Romney and running mate Paul Ryan would pursue massive tax cuts that would benefit only the very wealthy — stances that he said were far removed from their GOP predecessors.

"Ronald Reagan would turn in his grave listening to some of these people," he said. "They're so far out there."

Villaraigosa told the Iowans that he spent 25 years as a community organizer and urged them to register new voters and recruit volunteers to help re-elect Obama.

"We've got our work cut out for us. We know that," he said. "The country is evenly divided. It has been for a long time. So what are we going to do? This is going to be a working convention. Every one of you can sign up as a volunteer. In fact, I know you're already going to volunteer."

In Boulder, Colo., on Sunday, Obama warned a college crowd that "the other side is going to spend more money than we've ever seen in our lives, with an avalanche of attack ads and insults and making stuff up, just making stuff up."

"What they're counting on is that you get so discouraged by this, that at a certain point you just say, you know what, I'm going to leave it up to somebody else." Obama did not mention his own side's arsenal of negative advertising.

The Republican convention behind him, Romney was staying low for a few days, preparing for the October debates as Democratic conventioneers gathered for the opening of their event Tuesday.

Younger voters gave Obama a big boost four years ago and he can ill afford to see their support drop off in a tight election where the sluggish economy is the dominant issue in the nation and a specific drag to many young people coming out of college or trying to afford it.

But his campaign surely has a more immediate need for young people, too — helping to fill the seats for Obama's address Thursday. With 6,000 delegates at the convention and thousands more attached to the event, Democrats hope to pack a nearly 74,000-seat outdoor stadium for the prime-time speech.

Obama deputy campaign manager Jennifer O'Malley-Dillon told Iowa delegates the campaign was hoping the rain would stay away when the president delivers his speech.

"If you believe in weather gods, you should pray to them," she said.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro delivers the keynote speech on Tuesday, followed by first lady Michelle Obama's remarks. Obama and Biden will be nominated for second terms on Wednesday night, when former President Bill Clinton takes the stage as star speaker.

Keeping a strong focus on the economy, a new Obama campaign ad running in six closely contested states — Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia — claims Romney's policies would "hit the middle class harder" and that he doesn't see the "heavy load" the middle class is carrying.

Biden joined the fray, accusing Republicans of seeking to undermine the decades-old federal program millions of seniors rely on for health care. "We are for Medicare," he said Sunday. "They are for voucher care." That was a reference to a proposal in Congress by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee, to offer future retirees the option of buying health insurance with a government subsidy.

Romney spent Sunday at his Wolfeboro, N.H., vacation home, leaving only to attend church services with his wife, Ann. Aides said he would spend much of the Democrats' convention week preparing for three fall debates with Obama, beginning on Oct. 3.

Obama aides said they expected Romney and Republicans to outpace the president and his party in fundraising in August because Obama spent less time raising cash than in the month before, and because the GOP held its convention — usually a big money draw — in August.