CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (AP) — Democrats launched President Barack Obama on his uncertain bid for re-election as they opened their national convention Tuesday. They looked to help Obama recapture the hearts of Americans once drawn to his message of hope and change, but now weary after years of economic weakness and political squabbles.
The nationally televised, three-day convention puts Democrats in the spotlight, allowing them to depict Obama as a courageous, compassionate leader who has put the United States on the right track after inheriting a brutal recession. They countered attacks made at last week's Republican convention and cast rival Mitt Romney, a wealthy businessman and former Massachusetts governor, as distant, privileged and out-of-touch with ordinary Americans.
The star speaker Monday, first lady Michelle Obama, drew a contrast between her husband and Romney without mentioning the Republican's name. She talked about her husband's more humble background as a young man who drove a rusty car and wore dress shoes that were a size too small.
She painted a portrait of a leader who knows first-hand the struggles of everyday Americans, who listens to them as president, and who pushes an agenda with their interests in mind.
"That's the man I see in those quiet moments late at night, hunched over his desk, poring over the letters people have sent him," she said. "I see the concern in his eyes ... and I hear the determination in his voice as he tells me, 'You won't believe what these folks are going through, Michelle. it's not right. We've got to keep working to fix this. We've got so much more to do.'"
Polls show Obama and Romney locked in a tight race ahead of the November vote. Romney is seen as the better candidate for improving the economy, the biggest issue in the race. But Obama is seen as more likable and better able to connect with the concerns of middle-class Americans.
Candidates traditionally get a bounce in the polls from political conventions, though there is little sign that Romney improved his standing after the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida. Once dramatic events for selecting candidates and debating issues, political conventions are now carefully scripted shows put on by the parties with little spontaneity — making them less compelling television programming.
Tuesday's other major speaker during prime television time was San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who delivered the high-profile keynote address. A rising star in the party, Castro is of Mexican-American descent and his selection highlights the importance given to Hispanic voters in the race.
Castro said Obama "knows better than anyone there's more hard work to do." He said the United States is making progress "despite incredible odds and united Republican opposition."
He said Republican economic theories have been tested and failed. "Mitt Romney just doesn't get it," he said.
Many speakers denounced Romney. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid repeated attacks about Romney's refusal to release years of past federal income tax returns.
"Never in modern American history has a presidential candidate tried so hard to hide himself from the people he hopes to serve," he said.
Other convention highlights include Wednesday's roll call votes formally nominating Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, and a speech by Bill Clinton, the popular former president. The climax will be Obama's acceptance speech at a 74,000-seat football stadium on Thursday.
That speech will seek to recapture the grandeur of Obama's acceptance address in a Colorado stadium four years ago. At the time, the United States was in the midst of a devastating financial crisis while unpopular wars were dragging on in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama — young, magnetic and eloquent — captured the imagination of many Americans as the first black nominee of a major party. He promised a fresh start after eight years of George W. Bush's presidency and new hope for the economy.
Obama did withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq and the United States emerged from the recession. But economic growth has been tepid and unemployment is high at 8.3 percent. Though he stepped up drone strikes on suspected terrorists and gave the order that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, Republicans cast him as a weak leader. He won congressional approval of an overhaul of the U.S health care system, but his plan remains largely unpopular. Meanwhile, some Democrats have been disappointed by Obama's failure to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and what they see as lackluster action on issues such as climate change and immigration reform.
Outside the Democratic convention hall, police arrested 10 men and women who blocked an intersection in what they said was a protest of the nation's immigration laws. The 10 said they were illegal immigrants.
Republicans have been pressing a question made popular during Republican Ronald Reagan's successful campaign against incumbent President Jimmy Carter, asking voters if they are better off than they had been four years ago. Republicans released a web video that interspersed images of Obama and the economy's weak performance with slightly out-of-focus video clips of Carter discussing the country's economic woes when he sat in the White House more than 30 years ago.
Obama has also been invoking an unpopular former president, arguing that Romney plans to reprise George W. Bush's policies.
The election will allow voters to choose between contrasting visions of the role of government. Romney's Republicans, increasingly guided by the anti-tax tea party movement, want to minimize the role of government, which it sees as an obstacle to enterprise and liberty. Obama's Democrats see government as a potential force for good, helping the downtrodden and providing the education and infrastructure needed to help the country prosper.
The campaign promises to be the most expensive ever and Republicans already have a financial advantage. Romney has been raising more than Obama and the president's advisers are now publicly acknowledging that Obama will likely be outspent in this election.
Obama spent part of Tuesday addressing college students — an important part of his base —in Virginia, a key tossup state. He urged them not to forget him despite difficult times.
Republicans are "counting on you, maybe not to vote for Romney, but they're counting on you to feel discouraged," he said.
Obama said he and his two daughters would watch his wife's convention speech on television. "And I'm going to try not to let them see their daddy cry, because when Michelle starts talking I start getting all misty."
David Espo and Ken Thomas in Charlotte, Matthew Daly in Norfolk, Virginia; Steve Peoples in Ohio, Kasie Hunt in Vermont, Jack Gillum in Washington, and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.