One-time hurricane Isaac has stricken another national political convention.
A week after forcing Republicans to shorten their gathering, remnants of the storm prompted Democrats on Wednesday to move their meeting’s final day indoors, canceling plans for a dramatic open-air acceptance speech from President Barack Obama.
The decision knocked the Democrats’ convention slightly off stride. It forced a recalculation of ticket distribution and access, while handing Republicans a sound bite: The real reason for the decision, they claimed, wasn’t rain but fear of a half-empty football stadium for Obama’s big speech.
“After promising to speak at Bank of America stadium rain or shine, Team Obama is moving inside. Troubles filling the seats?” tweeted Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
“That’s nonsense,” replied Kansas Democratic delegate Lee Kinch shortly after the decision was announced.
Other delegates, however, admitted they were disappointed. Several remembered the drama of Obama’s outdoor speech in Denver in 2008, and hoped to replicate the event in Charlotte.
But “we don’t want our president to get rained on,” said Carol Stroker, a delegate from St. Louis County.
Regardless of the venue, Democrats said Obama’s speech tonight remains the most important of his re-election campaign.
Convention speeches from Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton, they said, matched those of Ann Romney and Paul Ryan in Tampa last week. Mitt Romney, they think, did a credible but not spectacular job, and Clint Eastwood’s untraditional conversation with an empty chair may have upstaged the former Massachusetts governor.
And unlike Romney, Democrats said, Obama doesn’t have to use his prime-time address to introduce himself to voters.
Instead, Democrats want Obama to provide specific details of what a second term in the White House would mean. Democrats think Romney came up short in providing specifics, and they believe Obama must give wavering voters a clear understanding of how he can improve their lives.
“I want him to be very clear and plain-spoken in terms of saying this is what we’ve done, and this is what we have left to do,” said Bob Saunders, a Missouri delegate.
Joan Wagnon, chairwoman of the Kansas Democratic Party, said Obama must use his speech to energize voters, particularly young voters, who helped him win in 2008.
“He needs to encourage people to get out and vote,” Wagnon said. “There are a lot of people who voted for him in 2008 who say, ‘I’m not sure he’s any different.’ The truth is he’s a lot different.”
Other Democrats said closing that enthusiasm gap will depend on how aggressive Obama is in the speech.
“When you read a novel, you need the turn in the middle of the book,” said Missouri political consultant Roy Temple. “This is the turn … I think he will tell the story of a bus that was headed over the cliff, he pulled us back from the abyss, and last week we had a bunch of people trying to grab the steering wheel back.”
Democrats said they were encouraged that Romney received a smaller polling bounce from the GOP convention than is usually the case. At the same time, they conceded he has pulled closer to Obama in most battleground states, and barely trails in several recent poll averages.
“I think (Obama) has to reinforce that he understands that this is a tough economy, and that he’s going to be spending every waking hour to get this economy moving and get those jobs started,” said Kansas City-based Democratic consultant Richard Martin.
Democrats also believe that message can overcome the headaches of a last-minute change in location. Balloons, for example, won’t be dropped tonight — too late to inflate them.
More than 60,000 tickets had been issued for the stadium speech, with thousands planning on traveling to Charlotte for the event. Democrats spent much of Wednesday figuring out what to do with those ticketholders.
Obama arrived in Charlotte in the afternoon and planned a conference call with supporters who will likely be shut out of tonight’s speech.
Some acknowledged that the open-air speech was a gamble in the first place. The 2008 Denver speech turned out so well, they reasoned, that the Charlotte address might have suffered by comparison, even if the weather had been perfect.
“You never want to have empty seats at an event like that,” noted Kansas state Rep. Paul Davis of Lawrence, a delegate at the convention. “People would see that as a sign of an enthusiasm gap.”