By CALVIN WOODWARD AND JULIE PACE, ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Four years later Democrats have gathered again, this time in support of a president who carries the power and the burden of incumbency, both in evidence as the opening gavel is struck at the Democratic National Convention.
President Barack Obama demonstrated the power Monday in a convention-eve visit to hurricane-stricken lands in Louisiana, offering aid and empathy. His burden is a ragged economy that is at the core of the hotly competitive contest with Republican Mitt Romney.
Michelle Obama's speech Tuesday night is an early highlight of a three-day schedule that has drawn thousands of delegates to a state Obama narrowly carried in 2008. Although Obama no longer is the fresh-faced newbie who leveraged a short Senate career into an audacious run for the nation's highest office, he still can excite partisans, and Democrats were counting on massive numbers to pack a stadium for his speech later in the week.
If hurricanes have no politics, the aftermath does. Obama's visit to stricken St. John the Baptist Parish outside New Orleans after a spirited Labor Day rally in battleground Ohio demonstrated, if in muted form, the partisan divide that cleaves the presidential campaign.
Obama emphasized the government's determination to lend a strong helping hand. Romney focused on neighbor helping neighbor in his visit days earlier, even though both support a mix of emergency aid from the taxpayer and volunteerism in response to natural disasters.
"We're here to help," Obama told residents during a brief tour Monday, going from lawn to lawn in a neighborhood of brick homes and front yards loaded with soggy but orderly piles of debris, the floodwaters receded. He told another family of the steps officials were taking to address the damage, adding, "I promise you that now that I've been here, they're going to make sure that they do it right."
On convention eve, Democrats released a party platform for ratification Tuesday that echoes Obama's call for higher taxes on the wealthy and reflects his shift on gay marriage by supporting it explicitly.
In a nod to dissenters on gay marriage, the platform expresses support for "the freedom of churches and religious entities to decide how to administer marriage as a religious sacrament without government interference."
As with the deeply conservative Republican platform, not all of which Romney endorses, nothing binds Obama to the specifics of the party's manifesto.
The president rallies in Virginia on Tuesday before joining the convention a day later. With flourishes but no suspense, Democrats will march through the roll call of states renominating Obama for president and Joe Biden for vice president on Wednesday.
That's also when the convention hears from Bill Clinton, whose 1990s presidency is being trumpeted by Democrats as the last great period of economic growth and balanced budgets – a further redemption of sorts, at least from his party, for a leader who survived impeachment over sexual scandal.
In a USA Today interview, Obama accused Republicans of building their campaign around a "fictional Barack Obama" by wholly misrepresenting his positions and words. He singled out Romney's claim, widely debunked, that the Obama administration stripped a work requirement out of federal welfare laws.
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His convention behind him, Romney relaxed at his lakeside home in New Hampshire with his family as Obama and Biden sought to motivate union voters to support them in difficult economic times. Romney took a midmorning boat ride, pulling up to a dock to fuel up his 29-foot Sea Ray and pick up a jet ski that had been in for repairs.
In his Labor Day statement, Romney said, "For far too many Americans, today is another day of worrying when their next paycheck will come."
The Republican convention last week heard testimonials from a colleague of Romney at Bain Capital and from the founder of Staples, the office supply chain that grew from the private-equity firm's investments. Democrats, focused on enterprises that closed or moved overseas after Romney's firm got involved, are giving speaking time to workers from Bain-controlled companies who will tell the other side of the story.
Campaigning on Saturday in Cincinnati, Romney had likened Obama to a football coach with a record of 0 and 23 million, a reference to the number of unemployed and underemployed Americans.
Obama offered a play-by-play rebuttal 48 hours later.
"On first down he hikes taxes by nearly $2,000 on the average family with kids in order to pay for massive tax cuts for multimillionaires," Obama said in his Toledo rally. "Sounds like unnecessary roughness to me.
"On second down he calls an audible and undoes reforms that are there to prevent another financial crisis and bank bailout. ...
"And then on third down, he calls for a hail Mary, ending Medicare as we know it by giving seniors a voucher that leaves them to pay any additional cost out of their pockets. But there's a flag on the play: Loss of up to an additional $6,400 a year for the same benefits you get now."
Romney denies that his plan to help the economy and reduce federal deficits will result in higher taxes for the middle class. But he has yet to provide enough detail to refute the claim. Obama's assertion rests on a study by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.
The candidates have been tangling heatedly over Medicare, with Romney reminding voters that Obama cut more than $700 billion over 10 years from the program to help pay for his health care law's expansion of insurance to more Americans. The president has gone after the Republican ticket for the idea of letting future retirees have the option of buying private insurance with government subsidies.
As for the auto bailout that Obama steered and Romney opposed, Obama told the audience, "Three years later, the American auto industry has come roaring back. Nearly 250,000 new jobs."
Obama came out with a campaign commercial asserting that, under Romney, "a middle-class family will pay an average of up to $2,000 more a year in taxes, while at the same time giving multimillionaires like himself a $250,000 tax cut." Aides said it would be seen in Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia, the battleground states where the 2012 race for the White House is likely to be decided.
The president and aides have acknowledged for weeks that they and the groups supporting them are likely to be outspent by Romney, and recent figures say that has been the case in television advertising in the battleground states for much of the past two months.
A few blocks from the convention hall in Charlotte, union members staged a Labor Day march through downtown. Though supporting Obama, they also expressed frustration that he and the Democrats chose to hold their convention in a state that bans collective bargaining for teachers and other public employees.
There was disagreement among the ranks of the marchers. "I understand their frustration ... but do they really think they're going to be better off with Romney?" said Phil Wheeler, 70, a delegate from Connecticut and a retired member of United Auto Workers Local 376 in Hartford.
Democrats chose North Carolina for their convention to demonstrate their determination to contest it in the fall campaign. Obama carried North Carolina by 14,000 votes in 2008, but faces a tough challenge this time given statewide unemployment of 9.6 percent, higher than the vexing national rate of 8.3 percent.
Republicans ramped up their counterprogramming as the opening of the Democrats' convention approached.
"People are not better off than they were four years ago," said Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, campaigning in Greenville, N.C. "After another four years of this, who knows what it'll look like then."
Obama's top campaign aides and allies had flinched from saying Sunday that the average American is better off than four years ago, but they – and Biden – hastily recalibrated their response overnight.
"You want to know whether we're better off?" Biden asked a campaign crowd in Detroit. "I've got a little bumper sticker for you: `Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.'"