Thousands of Democrats kick off their convention today in a decidedly different mood than four years ago.
The enthusiasm and inspiration of Denver 2008, Missouri and Kansas delegates said Monday, have largely disappeared. Democrats are fairly confident of holding the White House for President Barack Obama, but agreed the campaign has turned into a difficult boots-on-the-ground, precinct-by-precinct grind, not a hope-and-change crusade.
The challenge in Charlotte: Find the energy for a different kind of campaign.
“Right now, I think we’re sort of sluggish,” said Carolyn Wims-Campbell, a Kansas delegate from Topeka. “I’m very disappointed in us ... It’s going to take a lot of energy and working, for registration and to get out the vote.”
Longtime Missouri Democratic operative Roy Temple senses a similar mood shift, prompted by the need to defend a presidential record.
“When you’ve got the White House, you’ve also got the problems of the country on your shoulders,” Temple said. “You seldom get to have soaring rhetoric.”
Democrats haven’t completely dismissed the idea of using the convention to convey their re-election message. Like the Republicans, party heavy hitters — from Michelle Obama to Bill Clinton — will get prominent speaking roles.
Indeed, Democrats believe their three-day gathering and Obama’s acceptance speech on Thursday should easily match the just-concluded GOP convention in Tampa, Fla.
But unlike Mitt Romney, Obama is well-known to voters. That means he must use the convention to lay out a specific list of proposals for a second term.
“He’s had a lot of visibility and publicity,” said Kansas delegate Norman Kahn of Prairie Village. “It’ll be easier to make his case this time (than in 2008).”
Romney’s own speech focused on broader goals, not specific programs, Democrats noted. But it worked, at least in the short term.
For the first time in almost a year, Romney on Monday pulled even with Obama in the Real Clear Politics average of polls — although the Democratic incumbent still leads in projected electoral votes.
Also on Monday, GOP surrogates pounded Democrats after party members initially hesitated when asked if the country is better off today than four years ago.
“We’re worse off,” said Republican national Chairman Reince Priebus.
But at a Labor Day rally in Detroit, Vice President Joe Biden fired back, maintaining that America “is better off today than they left us when they (Republicans) left,” pointing to the taxpayer-supported rescue of General Motors and the death of Osama bin Laden as examples.
Some Democrats, however, acknowledged the Obama campaign must do a better job of communicating that record to voters. That’s particularly true in Missouri, they said, which still has an outside chance of voting for the Democrat.
State party Chairman Mike Sanders, who’s also Jackson County executive, said he’s hearing that Missouri could become a key state in the last 60 days of the campaign.
“It was made very clear to us that Missouri under no circumstances would be in play in the 2012 election,” Sanders said, recalling an early party strategy session. “The conversation now is no longer adamant that Missouri will never be in play. I think it’s possible. Things have changed so much in such a short amount of time for the better that it’s possible that Missouri could be back in play.”
Other Democrats also believe the campaign remains volatile, pointing to the changed landscape of the Missouri Senate race following U.S. Rep. Todd Akin’s now-famous remarks about rape and abortion, for which he has apologized.
“If you look at Claire (McCaskill) and Todd Akin, she was behind 8 or 9 (points), then he made that huge gaffe, and she picked up,” pointed out former Kansas City Councilwoman Cathy Jolly, who’s attending the convention as a guest.
“I’m not saying it will take Romney to make a mistake for Barack Obama to pick up, I just feel like as long as he keeps on doing what he’s doing, delivering the right message, making sure Missourians hear his message, that I think people will end up voting for him,” Jolly added.
But other Democrats fear Missouri may be lost to their party, at least at the presidential level, for some time.
In 2008, Obama’s campaign poured millions of dollars into the state for television ads and voter outreach, eclipsing the more modest effort of Sen. John McCain. The theory at the time was that Missouri — a state whose voters closely matched the nation’s demographics — was up for grabs by both nominees.
That last part turned out to be true. In fact, McCain’s slim 4,000 vote victory in the state, out of 2.9 million votes cast, was the closest in the nation in that presidential race.
But the results also proved what many had suspected: Missouri’s voters no longer mirrored the nation’s. Instead, the state had moved into the Republican column, at least at the presidential level, and looked more like Alabama or Arkansas than, for example, Iowa.
“I don’t think there’s any one thing you can pinpoint,” said outgoing U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan of Missouri when asked why the state has shifted to the right.
Missouri Democrats worried about their new Republican leanings might ask their western neighbors for help in coping with the recent switch. Kansas has been reliably Republican at the presidential level for generations.
“I tell people I’m a proud Democrat,” said Kansas delegate Wims-Campbell. “I talk positive about what I think we stand for, the principles that we stand for.”