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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The conventional summer has ended and the final lap of the 2012 election has officially begun.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The conventional summer has ended and the final lap of the 2012 election has officially begun.
President Barack Obama leaves North Carolina as the Democratic Party's official standard-bearer. Bill Clinton departs Charlotte elevated to the latest peak in a lifetime of political crashes and redemptions. And Mitt Romney, nowhere near Charlotte, was mocked for three nights straight.
Below, POLITICO's eight takeaways on the Democratic convention:
1. Obama was fine, Clinton was better
President Obama's speech was well-received in the convention hall and by some Democratic activists watching at home. But there was far less energy in the hall than there was for Clinton's speech a night earlier, underscoring that there is a difference between 2012 and 2008.
Obama himself alluded to those differences plainly, telling the party faithful he knew that "times have changed" since 2004.
"I'm no longer just a candidate. I'm the president," he said, referring to the stark realities the nation faces.
But despite rapping Romney for lack of a plan, he didn't go heavy on specifics. Obama listed a litany of numerical goals -- deficit reduction in 10 years and the like -- but that was about it for specifics. He spent some time on his accomplishments, but the economic stimulus, for instance, was not one he touted.
The president's language was hopeful and forward looking -- Obama left the toughest attacks to others.
This was not a speech that pressed reset for the president, but basically served the purpose of an incumbent dealing with a bad economy and evaporated 2008 magic. His hope is that Clinton did that for him, without also overshadowing him.
"Before last night, no one knew the rationale for keeping Barack Obama four more years -- now we do. Bill Clinton made it plain," said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. "He told us that when the sun comes up tomorrow, things will be better. He told us the greatest risk would be stopping in the desert and turning back from the promised land. Old dad came home and said, 'Trust me, give the kid another chance.'"
2. Energy and message went to Charlotte over Tampa
It doesn't dictate who will win. But the Democrats put on a better convention.
Not every metric here is the same. Republicans did the best they could under some trying circumstances, including a hurricane, a candidate to whom the base has warmed slowly and a city with logistical hurdles for such a large-scale event.
For all the talk -- and polling data -- showing an enthusiasm gap on the Democratic side, the partisans in the Time Warner Arena were fired up. The energy in the hall was real. The delegates stayed in their seats and listened attentively.
Whether the energy will extend beyond the hall to the rest of the country remains to be seen, but for three nights, this is what Democrats needed.
Most significantly, Democratic messaging was clearer than at the GOP convention, where there was no cohesive, unifying theme for the event beyond condemnations of Obama and defining Romney in personal terms. The Tampa speeches were disparate, many of them coming from governors who touted themselves and not their candidate.
In Charlotte, Democrats were more unified than they have been in months, despite Obama's party-of-one political style and questions about the language on gay marriage in the platform (mentions of gay marriage were threaded throughout the speeches in different ways). Michelle Obama's personal, biographical and strongly praised speech on Tuesday night set the tone for the remaining two evenings.
Unlike the Republican convention, the big star's speech that broke through was not an aging actor talking to a chair, but Clinton's, and it was clearly on-message.
3. Dems are living in the present, and the past
For all the talk about the "future" in Obama's speech, Democrats are still very squarely focused on the present.
Unlike in Tampa, where so much attention was on the party's future -- featuring a generation of up-and-coming leaders who are fiscally focused, with elements of the tea party doctrine melded into modern conservatism -- Democrats have their eyes on the here and now.
Part of that is the reality of the task at hand -- reelecting a president who, despite his very real electoral hurdles, is still in the hunt in this race. The focus is on 2012, and less so on shaping the future of post-Obamism, such as it is, in the Democratic Party.
The parade of Democratic hopefuls on the 2016 bench in Charlotte also seemed generally smaller in stature and less commanding than their Republican counterparts last week. That Hillary Clinton is again in the top tier for 2016 is telling, and, thanks to her diplomatic role, she wasn't even in Charlotte.
Democrats also focused plenty on the past -- namely the 48 minutes Bill Clinton spent reminding his party of the days when he was in the White House. So much for the "Clinton fatigue" that was the buzz of the 2008 convention.
4. Unforced errors still occurred
Like their counterparts, the Democrats were not immune to their own string of self-inflicted wounds this week.
There was the initial decision to hold Obama's acceptance speech at the Bank of America Stadium, a forum that some Democrats spent recent weeks declining to call by its actual name (see: Panthers Stadium). Then there was the concern about filling it. Afterward, Obama aides insisted the event would occur there, "rain or shine." Then it was moved inside the far-smaller Time Warner Arena because of a threat of severe thunderstorms. Then there were people angry that happened.
Both Wednesday and Thursday nights, the fire marshals locked the doors of the hall early, refusing to grant people, including delegates, entry to a packed hall. Local reporters apparently weren't given much of a heads-up that Obama was intending to make a "surprise" appearance on Wednesday, a bit of a problem in a state Democrats claim they still think they can win.
Most visible was the daylong fight over the exclusion from the platform of the words Jerusalem and God, both of which were omitted from the initial draft. "God" and language naming Jerusalem the capital of Israel was ultimately restored a day later, amid a weird, triple-attempt floor vote that included boos of undetermined origin.
The restoration then prompted complaints from Palestinian officials. Obama officials gamely tried to salvage the news cycle by making the president look authoritative, saying he personally ordered the change. But again, it took multiple votes to pass the new language, and it highlighted what has been a very real issue -- criticism over the administration's handling of relations with Israel -- for this White House for the past four years.
This was one of those unpredictable events that sometimes happen at major gatherings -- and indeed, news of the platform fight broke through the news cycle. For all the talk of Chicago as a well-oiled machine, the Democrats aren't immune to causing themselves problems, and then taking too long to rip off the band-aid.
5. The dynamics of the race are unchanged
For all the speechifying, the economy is still struggling. Unemployment remains over 8 percent (and the new jobs numbers are out Friday morning). Romney, despite his well-covered problems, is still polling close to Obama.
The pool of persuadable voters is small. And the debates, as they have for months, loom quite large with the potential to change what has been a remarkably stable race.
Obama may see a bit of a convention bounce, which Romney didn't, and it could help float him toward the first debate in Colorado on Oct. 3, but that's a relatively long time from now. On the other hand, if Romney is able to get traction off the latest jobs report, as he's hoping to, it could dent some of Obama's momentum.
Still, other basics also remain -- Obama goes into the fall fight with a better map than Romney, whose negative ratings remain historically high for a challenger.
6. Romney doubles down on Clinton
For months now, Romney has tried to use Bill Clinton as a cudgel against Obama.
Blunting those criticisms was one of the goals of the Clinton speech on Wednesday night, in which the former president laughingly, and in his unique way, mocked the Republicans and Romney as, essentially, intellectually dishonest and brazen.
Unquestionably, Romney's ability to use Clinton as a campaign weapon is harder now.
But Romney's campaign is signaling it plans to stick with the attack, arguing Clinton's speech simply highlighted the differences between him and Obama.
Clinton's speech was a barn-burner that was generally praised, although a lot of people went to bed before it was over. But it remains to be seen whether his popularity is transferable to Obama.
It's worth remembering that Clinton campaigned for John Kerry in 2004, soon after his heart disease was diagnosed and as he was becoming a more sympathetic figure. That didn't exactly lift Kerry over the finish line.
The difference in this case is Clinton is defending Obama over one of the former president's own key policies -- the welfare reform act.
7. The base rules
Are you a persuadable woman voter? Well, there was Sandra Fluke, best known as someone insulted by Rush Limbaugh, appearing in prime time to talk about birth control. Are you Hispanic, and a woman? There was Hispanic actress Eva Longoria, of "Desperate Housewives" fame, talking about her Texas roots.
How about a male Hispanic voter? There was Julian Castro, the up-and-coming Latino rising star, whose keynote address stressed his aspirational life story.
Presidential reelection efforts are often plays to the base, but the level of unapologetic overt outreach (or, in political vernacular, pandering) was a sight to behold. Biography ruled the day in most of the speeches, despite the fact that Obama, like Romney, has been criticized for not talking about his term, or what he would do the next time around.
The messages weren't subtle, and they were extremely targeted. The speakers highlighted issues like abortion and reproductive rights, a critical base-motivating issue this cycle but one that is not a clear a winner with the swing voters watching at home.
Granted, Ann Romney's Oprah-esque appeal to women and her husband's ticking off of the female politicians he knows raised some eyebrows for box-checking last week. Romney's approach was somewhat clunky, but it's a bit hard for Democrats to criticize Republicans for pandering after this week.
That said, the Obama campaign knows what voters it needs to persuade, and is going after them, unapologetically. But it was hard, at both conventions, not to hear shades of the Christine O'Donnell ad -- "I'm not a witch, I'm you."
8. Democrats hold the foreign policy upper hand
There were so many references to Osama bin Laden at the convention on the final night that it was hard to keep track, the most memorable coming from Sen. John Kerry, who suggested people should "ask Osama bin Laden" if he's better off now than he was four years ago.
It was always going to be the case that the killing of bin Laden would be a major factor in the Democratic convention.
But the abundant mentions of the slain Al Qaeda leader -- in video and in speeches -- were a reminder of one of the unusual facts of this cycle: Democrats have focused more on foreign policy and national security issues than Republicans, who are still assessing the shape of the party on international issues in the post-George W. Bush era.
Obama himself mocked Romney for insulting the closest U.S. ally, England, on his trip overseas.
Kerry's speech was particularly rough -- he ripped Romney as weak and pointed out bluntly that he hadn't acknowledged the U.S. troops or the ongoing war in Afghanistan in his own convention address.
There are few accomplishments Obama has had that both sides agree on, but bin Laden is one of them. And the goal is to make Romney look weak.