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Monday, September 3, 2012

In Charlotte, Convention-Goers Find Inspiration After Hours


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - “Would you like a roasted oyster?” asked the server in black, bouncing slightly to the throbbing bass, as guests entered the StartUp RockOn party. “They're an aphrodisiac.”

The Party

Capturing the scene at the Democratic National Convention.

(Pork sliders and fried chicken skewers were also passed, but only the amply stocked open bar seemed to promise an evening of similar potential.)

Nonetheless, some hundred-odd revelers on Monday evening ventured to Amos's Southend, a warehouse of a club in the Southend section of town, for a performance by the Roots and Allen Stone. Before the main event, guests sipped drinks, waved their arms to a “Call Me Maybe” remix, and buzzed about Will.i.am, who was also slated to perform.

StartUp RockOn, a group of three start-ups that joined to promote - what else - start-up culture, drew a trucker-hat and fedora-wearing multicultural crowd. Politicos like David Sutphen - a partner at the Brunswick Group and brother of Mona Sutphen, the former White House deputy chief of staff - glided across the room and reconnected with old friends. And celebrities like Rosario Dawson and Jon Hamm were also on the list, though as of press time (i.e. when your moonlighting party-reporter decided to sip in the scene elsewhere) they had yet to materialize.

But despite the comely crowd that could have been taking in an up-and-coming act at any cozy venue, signs of that trademark Obama earnestness best associated with his campaign four years ago did seep through. Organizers wore shirts emblazoned with eithe r “Innovate,” “Create,” or “Inspire.”

And Steven Leyh, a member of the Maryland delegation, offered - largely unprompted - that he had ventured down to Charlotte this week because “that's how you change the world.”

“Politics is about inspiring people,” he said, gin and tonic in hand and shouting to be heard over the din. “The real reason why we're here, the reason I'm a Democrat, is because we're a party of inclusion and what better way to do that than to include people from all over the world.”

Democrats Unveil Party Platform


Democrats unveiled their party's platform on Monday, declaring that with the passage of the health care law, the elimination of Qaeda leaders and the slowly improving economic prospects the country had emerged from the near calamity it faced four years ago.

But not surprisingly, the platform laid out the argument that President Obama's work was unfinished, and warned of a consolidation of power in the hands of the wealthiest should Republicans win the presidency in November.

“This election is not simply a choice between two candidates or two political parties,” the platform said, “but between two fundamentally different paths for our country and our families.”

Indeed, many planks of the platform were diametrically opposed to those in the Republican platform released last week. Along with the emerging threats of cybersecurity, biological weapons and transnational crime, the platform included a call for robust measures to combat climate change. Higher taxes for the wealthy and the protection of abortion rights were also key elements.

And following the president's lead, the platform for the first time expressed support for same-sex marriage.

In Charlotte, as in Tampa, the Weather Becomes a Worry


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Mother Nature is apparently bipartisan in her wrath.

Just a week after upending the carefully planned schedule at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., with a hurricane, she appears to have set her sights on the gathering of Democrats here, where President Obama is set to accept the nomination in an open-air stadium on Thursday - with no umbrellas allowed.

As delegates began arriving Monday evening, the skies began darkening, with thunderstorms bringing the possibility of flooding to the Charlotte area. Weather forecasts suggested that storms might extend through Thursday night.

“We have an advisory team in place that is constantly updating a contingency pl an in the event of severe weather, which will be announced if the need arises,” said Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the convention. Safety is a top priority, she said.

The political risk is high, just as it was for Republicans, who canceled the first day of their convention because of Hurricane Isaac. Democrats are eager to deliver their campaign message this week without the same kind of distractions.

On Monday, inaccurate rumors of a tornado warning circulated among the thousands of reporters at the Charlotte Convention Center. Convention planners, eager to believe that their long-scheduled events are less cursed than those of the Republicans were, quickly went to Twitter with a denial on behalf of the storm gods.

But even without the threat of a tornado, the weather appeared to be making every effort to be fair and balanced. Those gathered for a James Taylor concert Monday night found themselves drenched. Reporters who had planned a late arrival in C harlotte found themselves delayed by the storm.

“Dear Charlotte,” Chris Cillizza, the author of The Fix blog at The Washington Post, wrote on Twitter. “Please move the thunderstorms. Fix Force One is currently grounded.”

For now, the Democratic organizers appear unbowed by the prospect of a soggy conclusion to the convention.

“The convention proceedings at Bank of America Stadium will take place rain or shine, similar to other events at the stadium,” Ms. Peters said, noting that only extreme weather would force any changes in the schedule.

That may be fine for the millions of people who will watch Mr. Obama's address on television. The president recently delivered one of his stump speeches in a downpour in Richmond, Va. - showing even more energy and enthusiasm than usual.

But that may be of little comfort to the tens of thousands gathered in the stadium.

Follow Michael D. Shear on Twitter at @shearm.

Social Media Site Creates Buzz With Convention Parties


At the Republican convention last week, the big bash sponsored by BuzzFeed at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa was among the most exotic and most talked about, featuring mermaids (undulating in full fin alongside fish in glass tanks) and penguins (sitting adorably in little wagons, with a helpful handler reminding revelers that, yes, even cute penguins do bite).

The Party

Capturing the scene at the Democratic National Convention.

So the pressure is on for the social media Web site, which is now known as much for its political coverage as for pictures of cute animals , to put on something memorable for the Democrats.

On Tuesday evening, BuzzFeed will take over Discovery Place, the science museum in Charlotte, N.C., and allow conventioneers to mix with other party animals: an iguana and a tortoise. The space also offers a rain forest room (complete with waterfall), an aquarium bar and a “touch tank” so visitors can pet the hermit crabs and sea urchins.

No word yet on whether or not there will be cats.

Five Questions for Michelle Rhee


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor in Washington D.C., is now pushing education reform through her organization Students First - and continuing to annoy the teachers' union along the way.

Ms. Rhee was at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., where she appeared alongside former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who - like many Republicans - sees her as a darling of the school choice movement.

But she's also a lifelong Democrat who believes that President Obama has done more to make major education reforms than other presidents. She is attending the Democratic convention here this week and stopped on Monday to talk to The Times. What follows is a condensed and edi ted transcript of the conversation.

Do you feel like you are behind enemy lines?

Not at all. I'm a life-long Democrat. I was at the convention four years ago. There are certainly some disagreements that we have with the teachers' unions, but there's a real growing interest in education reform amongst a group of Democrats as well, and I think you're only going to see that increase as time goes on.

One of the policies you're promoting is this idea of giving more power to parents, through this “parent trigger.” How does that work?

So, parent trigger is a piece of legislation, or a policy, that allows for a group of parents whose children attend a failing school, if more than 50 percent of them sign a petition, they can force the turnaround of that school. This is a way that you can really empower parents whose kids are in the worst situations - their children are trapped in failing schools - to get them engaged and involved.

The teachers' union s hate this. Why do they hate it so much?

It's a little confusing to me as to why the union is so against this. There was an effort to try to pass a bill like this in Connecticut and the unions put out a sort of big PowerPoint thing, this is how we kill the bill and that sort of thing. In fact, teachers' unions are one of the biggest proponents of having more parental involvement in the schools. The bottom line is that if we want parents to take a more active interest in the education that their children are getting, then we can't draw the line and say ok, well, we only want you to come to the classrooms and cut out letters and bake brownies.

Are union politics getting in the way of education reform?

I, a little more than four years ago, was sort of thinking to myself is it really possible for a Democrat to be aggressive on education reform? Since President Obama has been in office, he has not disappointed. He has taken incredibly aggressive stands, through things like Race to the Top, on issues like charter schools and teacher evaluations. I don't know that they've necessarily endorsed this particular strategy. But they've endorsed a lot of the reform agenda.

Have you thought about running for office? From which party?

Oh, goodness no. I told you, I am a registered, lifelong Democrat, always have been, always will be. My husband is the politician in the family. He's the mayor of Sacramento, also a Democrat. So I'm going to leave all of the politics up to him and I'm going to focus on making sure we are pushing better policies for our kids.

Follow Michael D. Shear on Twitter at @shearm.

Romney Spends Labor Day at Home


BOSTON - On Monday, the traditional start of the general election campaign, President Obama rallied a crowd of thousands in Toledo, Ohio. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. drummed up support in Detroit. And Representative Paul D. Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, spoke to an overflow audience in North Carolina, the state where the Democrats were set to open their national convention this week.

But Mitt Romney lay low at his summer vacation home.

Mr. Romney, who spent the two days after his party's convention last week campaigning in front of large and enthusiastic crowds in Florida and Ohio, hit the waters of New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee with his wife, Ann, on Monday. He cap tained a boat; she rode a Sea-Doo water scooter.

The only sighting of Mr. Romney on Monday was when he stopped by a marina in Wolfeboro, N.H., to pick up a Sea-Doo that had been serviced.

It was his second day in a row off the campaign trail. On Sunday, he attended church services in Wolfeboro but made no other public appearances.

Mr. Romney was surely working while at home, and his campaign said he would attend debate preparation sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday in Vermont, where he and senior campaign advisers planned to gather at the home of Kerry Healey, a former Massachusetts lieutenant governor.

It seems unlikely that Mr. Romney will cede the entire week of the Democratic National Convention to Mr. Obama. His advisers have indicated that they are planning some campaign activity this week, though they have declined to provide specifics.

At times over the summer, Mr. Romney's schedule has been rather light, making time for a weeklong family vacation and plenty of closed-door meetings with senior advisers.

According to a pool report provided to other news organizations on Monday, Mr. Romney, wearing a white polo shirt, checkered swim trunks and no shoes, stopped to chat with an NBC News reporter who was renting a boat. “You won't catch me,” Mr. Romney said playfully.

And with that, Mr. Romney drove off in his boat. And Mrs. Romney drove off on the Sea-Doo.

The Caucus Click: Michelle Obama on the Convention Floor


Paul Adds Some Loaded Figures to Question of \'Better Off?\'


GREENVILLE, N.C. - Representative Paul D. Ryan compared the struggling economy to Jimmy Carter-era malaise, when a candidate named Ronald Reagan denied a president re-election by asking an unsettling question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?''

“There's a little gathering going on over in Charlotte,'' Mr. Ryan said here in eastern North Carolina, about a four-hour drive from the site of the Democratic National Convention. “The president can say a lot of things, and he will, but he can't tell you that you're better off. Simply put, the Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days compared to where we are right now.”

The Republican National Co mmittee and the Romney-Ryan campaign sounded the charge on Monday morning with a new video, a Web site and a statistics dump attacking President Obama on what they consider his biggest vulnerability, all asking the question: “Are you better off?”

Mr. Ryan picked up the theme speaking to 2,000 people at East Carolina University, while Mitt Romney took a break in New Hampshire from public campaigning.

“In July of 1980, the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent,” Mr. Ryan said. “For the past 42 months, it's been above 8 percent under President Obama's failed leadership.” He also cited the even higher unemployment rate of 9.6 percent in North Carolina, a state that Mr. Obama won in 2008 but where the race is deadlocked, according to the latest polls.

While correct, some of Mr. Ryan's numbers seemed cherry-picked to paint the worst possible picture and to ignore the argument by Democrats that Mr. Obama inherited a disastro us economy that continued to deteriorate during much of his first year, but that since then has turned around and slowly improved.

It is true that unemployment in North Carolina is higher than the national average. It is also true that the rate peaked at 11.4 percent in January and February 2010 and has been dropping since then.

Mr. Ryan also cited bankruptcy numbers to make the point that failing businesses mean fewer jobs. “In 1980 under Jimmy Carter, 330,000 businesses filed for bankruptcy,” he said. “Last year, under President Obama's failed leadership, 1.4 million businesses filed for bankruptcy.”

But he appeared to conflate business bankruptcies and much more numerous personal bankruptcies. Of the 331,264 bankruptcies in 1980, only 43,694 were for businesses, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute.

Of the 1,410,653 total bankruptcy filings last year, 47,806 were business bankruptcies, according to the institute. And, again, the n umbers are falling. In 2009, there were 60,837 business bankruptcies. In July, the latest month with complete statistics, business bankruptcies were 22 percent lower than a year earlier, and personal bankruptcies were down 11 percent.

A Glimpse of Lobbyists\' Convention Exile


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Lobbyists are beside themselves: the president's public cold shoulder has exiled them to the fringes of the convention. Just how far afield?

The Party

Capturing the scene at the Democratic National Convention.

Six blocks.

That was the political purgatory where Tony and Heather Podesta, the K Street power couple, held an extravagant brunch for corporate clients and political friends on Monday.

Ms. Podesta, in a lavender dress and matching three-inch-high heels from Prada, recalled how “jarring” it was when then-candidate Obama bar red lobbyists from donating to his campaign or sponsoring convention events. She was displeased enough in Denver four years ago that she handed out scarlet-colored L pins to her spurned brethren. “It's a big tent party, why exclude us?”

The anger has subsided since, and inside the posh restaurant on the first floor of the Mint Museum on Monday, the tent felt pretty generously sized. Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina walked in and gave Mr. Podesta a firm hug; he gave her a peck on the cheek. “You were great on TV this morning, sweetie,” he gushed.

Mr. Podesta, wearing a royal blue Brioni suit and red Prada loafers (“The Pope wears Prada,” the superlobbyist said, “And so do I.”), reminded Ms. Hagan that she had “a permanent invitation” to what, to our eavesdropping ears, sounded like an exotically located vacation home.

Across the room, Ms. Podesta held court with a seersucker-suited Representative Nancy Pe losi, the minority leader. At one point, the two women compared their purple-toned shoes.

All around them, executives from Blue Shield, Wal-Mart and Novo Nordisk, the global health care giant, munched on bite-size biscuit-and-country-ham sandwiches, deviled eggs with pickled okra, duck and corn quesadillas, and bourbon molasses truffles.

No one from the Obama administration was there, not in person anyway. But the president made a cameo of sorts: The Podestas reminded guests that they had just purchased a giant painting of the president by Shepard Fairey, and donated it to the Mint Museum.

Ms. Podesta encouraged guests to head to the museum to steal a glimpse of Mr. Obama's red, white and blue face - the same one that graced the famous “Hope” posters of 2008, offering a few invitees a personal tour. As she stood in front of the towering image of him, the president suddenly did not seem so far away from the lobbyists after all.

On Labor Day, Obama Talks Up Auto Bailout in Ohio


TOLEDO, Ohio â€" President Obama pointed to his bailout of the auto industry, which Mitt Romney opposed, as a major argument for his re-election over the Republican rival as he spent a fourth Labor Day with union workers in a swing state.

Without the rescue, “more than one million Americans across the country would have lost their jobs in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In communities across the Midwest it would have been another Great Depression,” Mr. Obama told an estimated 3,100 supporters, most of them African-Americans, crammed into a high school gymnasium not far from this city's Jeep plant.

The fallout also would have threatened the jobs of local teach ers, small business owners, diner servers and bartenders, “who know your order before you even walk in,” Mr. Obama said, his voice rising.

“I stood with American workers, I stood with American manufacturers, I believe in you, I bet on you, I'll make that bet any day of the week,” he said, adding, “Three years later, that bet is paying off for America. Three years later, the American auto industry has come roaring back.”

His focus on the auto industry's comeback was layered on the stump speech Mr. Obama has delivered now for three days in swing-state campaigning before his renomination convention this week. He engaged in an extended sports metaphor, to mock Mr. Romney's recent remark that he should replace Mr. Obama as the country's coach to produce a winning season. In the case of the auto industry, the president said, Mr. Romney would have called the wrong play.

One out of eight Ohio workers are employed in jobs r elated to the auto industry, according to the Obama campaign, and the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler ultimately saved nearly 155,000 jobs with manufacturers and suppliers. Mr. Obama rebutted Republican criticisms since 2009 that the rescue was a bailout for pro-Democratic unions, noting to his audience's shouts of agreement that union workers had forfeited pay and benefits as part of the industry restructuring he demanded in return for the bailout.

Ohio's unemployment rate for some time has been lower than the national average, and the auto industry rescue is considered a big reason Mr. Obama has been leading in the polls in this state, which is crucial to the election outcome. The most recent nonpartisan poll from Ohio, for Quinnipiac University/The New York Times/CBS News, showed Mr. Obama in the lead with the support of 50 percent of likely voters to Mr. Romney's 44 percent.

Republicans, in their counterprogramming to the Democratic convention, have be gun raising a frequent question from the out-of-power party: Are voters better off than they were four years ago?

With Mr. Romney taking a post-convention break and preparing for next month's debates with Mr. Obama, his running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan, took up the attack on Monday.

“Every president since the Great Depression who asked Americans for a second term could say you were better off than four years ago except for Jimmy Carter and President Barack Obama,” Mr. Ryan said. He went on to cite a number of economic statistics from the Carter years and compare them to today's numbers, which are worse.

Warming up the crowd for Mr. Obama were Bob King, president of the United Automobile Workers, which distributed tickets for the event; Richard L. Trumka, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. president; Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association; Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis; and Senator Sherrod Brown, who is in a tough re-election race himself. Mr. Obama had planned a second Ohio stop in Cleveland, but scrapped that to fly to Louisiana to inspect the damage and recovery effort after Hurricane Isaac caused severe flooding last week.

Before his speech here, Mr. Obama stopped at a diner for breakfast with three union members and greeted other enthusiastic patrons.

As president, his activities on Labor Day have charted the frustrating course of a term that has been defined by the slow economic recovery, which is the biggest threat to his re-election.

In his first year he also was in Ohio, at an A.F.L.-C.I.O. picnic in Cincinnati. The country was still losing jobs, though at a fast-declining rate after his stimulus package and auto rescue took effect; the unemployment rate peaked the following month at 10 percent.

In 2010 he was with union families in Milwaukee, another industrial city in a Midwestern swing state, celebrating eight months of job growth. Unemployment was 9.6 percent and with the original stimulus measures winding down, Mr. Obama called for more; his request went nowhere in Congress, and Republicans gained control of the House in midterm elections.

Last year he spent Labor Day about 50 miles north of here in the auto-manufacturing capital, Detroit, at a rally with about 13,000 union workers and families outside the General Motors headquarters. With unemployment at 9 percent, Mr. Obama previewed the jobs plan he would outline days later in a nationally televised address to Congress.

While Congressional Republicans ultimately agreed to extend the tax cuts for individuals and businesses that were part of that plan, they blocked major parts, including infrastructure spending to spur hiring, especially of construction workers, and state aid to avoid further layoffs of teachers and first-responders.

To this day, Mr. Obama assails Republicans on the stump for failing to pass his entire plan, which Moody's Analytics said would add 1.9 million jobs, lower the unemployment rate by a percentage point and raise the gross national product by two percentage points.

White House Beer: A Brewer Weighs In


Now that the White House has revealed its recipe for Honey Brown Ale, brewed by cooks in the White House kitchen using honey from its own hives (along with releasing a nifty video of the beer-making process), I thought it would be worth assessing the recipe and methods, and conjecturing on how the beer would taste. This required a beer-making professional, so I called on Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery and editor of the encyclopedic “Oxford Companion to Beer.”

Like most professional brewers, Mr. Oliver began as a home brewer, and so is intimately aware of the challenges and limitations of making beer in bathrooms and kitchens, even one as exalted as the White House.
“Brewing at home is very much like cooking at home â€" it doesn't bear much resemblance to professional brewing, but it can be done simply or very rigorously, and the results can be excellent,'' he told me, adding that the Brewers Association, a craft-brewing trade group, estimates that a million Americans make beer at home. (After word of the White House's brewing experiment spread, many of them joined in urging President Obama's aides to divulge the recipe.) “The version of brewing they're doing at the White House might be called ‘second-level beginner.' ”

Rigorous professionals, Mr. Oliver said, brew with malted barley, adding hops at appropriate times during the process for aromas, flavors and bitterness. An absolute beginner would use a liquid malt extract to which hops have already been added, like baking brownies from a mix - no muss, no fuss. The White House, Mr. Oliver said, has taken the next step, using a malt syrup but adding hop pellets, real hops that are gr ound up and pressed into pellets to preserve them. Most professional brewers, it should be noted, use hop pellets rather than actual hops.

“They've also added some crushed grains and steeped them like tea leaves,'' Mr. Oliver said. “In this case, the biscuit malts give a toasty malt flavor, adding some complexity and fresh grain character. Amber crystal malts give a light caramel flavor.''

Most interesting to Mr. Oliver was the White House's use of honey from its own hives, an ingredient often used by home brewers. “This honey will give its own distinct flavor to the beer, but the sugars in honey will ferment completely, so the honey adds no sweetness,'' he said.

How does he think it would taste, extrapolating as a professional who is familiar with the ingredients and the methods?

“Light, crisp and dry, with some bready flavors from the malts, floral notes from the honey, and fruitiness from the British ale yeast ,'' Mr. Oliver said. “Altogether pleasant, great with seafood and salads, goat cheeses, or hanging out in the sunshine in the Rose Garden.''

As a next step, Mr. Oliver suggested that rather than using the malt syrup, the White House produce its own mash of malted barley. “However, very few home brewers start by doing an actual mash - I certainly didn't - so I'm happy to give the chefs a break here,'' he said.

He also suggested that, since the White House has been growing more of its own food, it plant barley and hops so that it could brew a beer entirely of White House ingredients.

“And if they need some brewing help,'' he said, “I am standing by, ready to do my duty for my country.''

At Democratic Convention, Rove Can Cause a Stir, Simply by Being Here


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - All was pleasant aboard the shuttle bus ferrying New York Democratic convention delegates to the convention center here Monday morning.

The Party

Capturing the scene at the Democratic National Convention.

Delegates chatted amiably, swapped political gossip and gawked at the grand homes along the streets of Myers Park, an affluent neighborhood south of the city.

But suddenly, as the bus neared the central city, boos broke out. Hissing filled the vehicle.

“Let me out right here!” yelled one agitated delegate.

There, on the si dewalk, was the source of all the agitation: Karl Rove, Republican mastermind, chatting with an acquaintance, oblivious to the uproar he had caused.

“Do these windows open?” screamed another delegate. “I want to tell him what I think of him!”

It wasn't until the bus turned the corner, and Mr. Rove slipped from view, that tranquillity returned.

Obama Ad Reprises Theme That Romney Would Hurt Middle Class


As President Obama kicks off his convention week in Charlotte, N.C., his campaign has a new ad that doubles down on his charges that Mitt Romney‘s economic policies would harm the middle class.

“The middle class is carrying a heavy load in America,” the commercial says as images of a forlorn-looking mother and a worker in a hard hat appear on the screen. “But Mitt Romney doesn't see it.” A picture of Mr. Romney flashing a wide grin is shown, along with a picture of a stately brick mansion.

“So, Romney hits the middle class harder and gives millionaires and even bigger break. Is that the way forward for America?”

The ad repeats the claim - made often by Mr. Obama and his allies - that Mr. Romney's economic plans would result in a tax increase for middle-class families while lowering taxes on people in the highest income brackets. A study by the left-leaning Brookings Institution found that to be the case.

The Romney campaign has sought to discredit that study, noting that its author served on the president's Council of Economic Advisers.

A Romney campaign spokeswoman sought to shift the focus toward the state of the economy since Mr. Obama took office, noting that “the middle class has been crushed under President Obama, but he doesn't seem to get it.”

“Gas prices have doubled, incomes have dropped, poverty is headed toward 50-year highs and chronic unemployment is at unprecedented levels,” said the spokeswoman, Amanda Henneberg.

The Caucus Click: Madame President?

The American Presidential Experience, a traveling exhibit, has landed in Charlotte, N.C., to coincide with the Democratic National Convention. Above, Jyoti Vashee taking a photograph of her children, Shivali, 13, and Rushil, 9, at the exhibits mock Oval Office.Stephen Crowley/The New York Times“The American Presidential Experience,” a traveling exhibit, has landed in Charlotte, N.C., to coincide with the Democratic National Convention. Above, Jyoti Vashee taking a photograph of her children, Shivali, 13, and Rushil, 9, at the exhibit's mock Oval Office.

G.O.P. Seizes on a Question: Are You Better Off Than You Were 4 Years Ago?


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Republicans on Monday seized on hesitant responses by President Obama's top strategists when asked whether the country was better off than it was four years ago, even as Democrats began gathering here for their party's three-day nominating convention.

A spokesman for Representative Paul D. Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, said Mr. Ryan would “press the question that Democrats have so much trouble answering” at a rally in Greenville, N.C., on Monday. And a spokesman for Mitt Romney's campaign criticized Democrats as seeming out of touch with the plight of everyday Americans.

“The middle class has been crushed under President Obama, but he doesn't seem to ge t it,” said Amanda Hennenberg, a spokeswoman for Mr. Romney. “Americans deserve a president who understands we're not better off and has a plan to fix it.”

Republicans are eager to put the Democrats on the defensive on the question at the start of the Democratic convention. Polls suggest that many people remain pessimistic about the economy and their own financial future - a fact that Republicans hope will help undermine Mr. Obama's convention message this week.

The attacks come a day after Martin O'Malley, the Democratic governor of Maryland, responded to a question by saying that America was not better off than it was when Mr. Obama was elected.

“No,” he said, “but that's not the question of this election. The question, without a doubt, we are not as well off as we were before George Bush brought us the Bush job losses, the Bush recession, the Bush deficits.”

Mr. O'Malley's comments on CBS's “Face the Na tion” were followed by awkward responses from David Axelrod and David Plouffe, two of the top strategists for Mr. Obama's campaign. Both men sought to dodge a direct answer to the question of whether the country was better off.

That hesitation changed quickly on Monday as top Democrats - including Mr. O'Malley - sought to clarify their comments on Monday morning's news programs.

On CNN, Mr. O'Malley said that “we are clearly better off as a country because we're now creating jobs rather than losing them.” Brad Woodhouse, the communications director for the Democratic National Committee, said that the country was “absolutely” better off.

“The truth is that the American people know, we were literally a plane, the trajectory was towards the ground,” Mr. Woodhouse said on CNN. “He got the stick and pulled us up out of that decline.”

The question - which Ronald Reagan also memorably posed in a 1980 debate with President Jimmy Carter - is central to the argument that Mr. Obama will make over the next three days and into the fall.

But answering it requires Mr. Obama's team to walk a careful line: Appear too optimistic about the country's being better off, and Democrats risk being accused of not understanding the depth of the personal crisis that many people still feel. But admit that the country is not better off - as Mr. O'Malley did - and the Republicans will pounce.

Aides to Mr. Obama clearly believe that they can walk that line, in part by answering a slightly different question - is the country better off than it would have been if Republicans had been in charge for the past three and a half years.

On the “Today” show on NBC, Stephanie Cutter, the deputy campaign manager for Mr. Obama, pointed to the state of the economy when the president took over in January 2009 and to the progress that she said had been made since then.

“Let me just walk you through what life was like fou r years ago right now,” Ms. Cutter said. “In the six months before the president was elected, we lost 3.5 million jobs, wages had been going down for a decade, auto industry on the brink of failure. Our financial system, this is just about the time you're seeing banks go under. All over America middle-class families were feeling it.”

Ms. Cutter answered the question with no hesitation, also saying that the country was “absolutely” better off now than it was.

But strategists like Ms. Cutter know that they cannot risk having the rest of the presidential campaign center on that question. Instead, they hope that Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the rest of the major convention speakers can help shift the focus ahead of the final sprint to Election Day.

At a news conference on Monday, Antonio Villaraigosa, the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, said the convention would seek to remind people what kind of economy the president inherited from Mr. Bush and what he did to respond to the financial challenges for the middle class.

“We're going to present our vision, and we're also going to affirm our values,” Mr. Villaraigosa said. “We will recount the last four years and tell the story of a president who led us through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.”

Follow Michael D. Shear on Twitter at @shearm.

Welcome to Charlotte, a City of Quirks


CHARLOTTE, N.C. â€" Politicians, delegates, lobbyists, journalists and protesters were gathering on Monday in Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention, which begins on Tuesday. They will find an Old South gold rush town that grew up to be a New South banking center with tall, shiny buildings, artsy statues and a few quirks - from a statue believed to be modeled after Alan Greenspan's face to the “Disco Chicken.”

Here's what visitors need to know to understand “the Q.C.” (We'll explain what that is in a minute.)

1. Please don't use the “D” word. The place with all the skyscrapers is called “uptown,” not downtown.

2. Can't figure out how to get around? Here's a primer: Uptown is divided into four wards â€" First Ward, Second Ward, Third Ward and Fourth Ward. But in recent years, color-coded signs have popped up designating Uptown East, Uptown West, Uptown North and Uptown South. So First Ward is Uptown East, which is green. Second Ward is South, which is orange. Third Ward is West, which is blue. And Fourth Ward is North, which is red. Confused? Join the club.

3. At least it's easy to find the center of town. That's the intersection of Trade and Tryon Streets, at what were originally Indian trading paths. You'll know you're there if you look up and see four bronze sculptures, one on each corner. The figures are called Commerce - a gold prospector on top of the face of a businessman that is said to be a likeness of Mr. Greenspan; Industry - a mill worker; and Transportation - a railroad builder. All three are looking at the fourth sculpture, called Future - a woman kneeling while holding up a baby. There 's a little hornet's nest underneath her.

4. So what's with the hornet's nests, which are on every police car and officer's uniform as well? No, it's not an artistic statement or an infestation warning. During the Revolutionary War, the British commander Charles Cornwallis called Charlotte “a hornet's nest of rebellion.” The name proudly stuck. More than 200 years later, when the N.B.A. came to Charlotte, the team was called the Hornets. But then the franchise moved to New Orleans and, to the dismay of some, kept the name. Charlotte now has the Bobcats, a team that last season produced the worst record in the history of the league. Message to the N.B.A.: Please return the Hornets.

5. Speaking of names, the statue in front of Charlotte Douglas International Airport of a woman who appears to be falling down, or just got punched in the stomach, is the city's namesake. Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was the wife of King George III of England in the late 1700s and early 1800s (Charlotte is in Mecklenburg County). That's why she's balancing a crown in her right hand. You'll notice little crowns on signs all over Charlotte, which is nicknamed the Queen City. Or, as the young and hip like to call it, “the Q.C.”

6. That 17-foot-tall mirror-covered statue in front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art uptown that looks like it came straight out of “Logan's Run” is called the Firebird. The statue is from the French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle and was purchased by a museum patron, Andreas Bechtler. “When I saw the Firebird, I knew it was outstanding. I knew it would be great for the museum,'' Bechtler is quoted as saying on the museum's Web site. “The Firebird is joyful, uplifting and engaging. It makes you feel that life is good.” The Firebird's nickname? Disco Chicken, of course.

7. Charlotte is road-challenged, Part I: Uptown is the tiny pedestrian-friendly center of Charlotte, a city that act ually covers about 280 square miles. If you're driving, do yourself a favor and use a GPS unit. The city is maddening to those who think roads should have, say, one name instead of three or four. If you happen to be on Morehead Street, don't be alarmed when it becomes Queens Road and then Providence Road. All in less than a mile. Oh, and Billy Graham Parkway magically turns into Woodlawn, then Runnymede. Tyvola is suddenly Fairview, then Sardis. If you want to stay on Sardis, you have to turn right or else you'll wind up on Rama, which becomes Idlewild. Got that?

8. Charlotte is road-challenged, Part II: Those who are staying north of uptown in the University area of Charlotte or in Concord, N.C., (Texas, Maryland, Michigan and the 18 other delegations out that way, we're talking to you), leave a fair amount of time to get to the convention. North Carolina has a 10-lane highway running through Salisbury (population 33,500) but only a six-lane highway running north and south through Charlotte (population 750,000) that isn't going to be widened in your lifetime. Expect traffic.

9. Nascar's headquarters are in Daytona Beach, Fla., but everybody knows that Charlotte is the sport's real home. Most of the race teams are in the region, and the Nascar Hall of Fame is uptown right next to the Nascar office tower. Just weeks ago, Nascar made its contribution to the political process with a grand fund-raiser â€" for Mitt Romney. Nascar's chairman and chief executive, Brian France, along with two leading Nascar team owners, Rick Hendrick and Richard Childress, were among the hosts.

On the Lens Blog: Dodging the Police and Tear Gas at the 1968 Democratic Convention


When they convened in 1968 in Chicago, the Democrats, like the nation, were deeply divided. Outside the convention, protests got out of hand and the police came down hard - Barton Silverman, a Times photographer, captured it all, including an arrest.

Monday Reading: They\'re Souvenirs, Not Stuff!


A variety of consumer-focused articles appears daily in The New York Times and on our blogs. Each weekday morning, we gather them together here so you can quickly scan the news that could hit you in your wallet.

The Early Word: Playing for Keeps


Today's Times

  • Aides and friends to President Obama say he is a voraciously competitive perfectionist, and his will to win - and fear of losing - is in overdrive this campaign season, Jodi Kantor writes.
  • Mr. Obama compared the Republican National Convention to a rerun on “Nick at Night,” saying the speakers were backward-looking and unwilling to provide new ideas, Jackie Calmes reports.
  • Speaker John A. Boehner raised $84 million in just under two years, believed to be the biggest amount brought in by a House speaker in a single election cycle, Jennifer Steinhauer reports. The dizzying amount underscores how fund-raising has become both a top responsibility of the modern speaker and a means to holding on to that power at the top.
  • Protesters filled the streets of Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday for the Democratic National Convention, pushing a long agenda of grievances, Viv Bernstein writes. Though two were arrested, it was a peaceful march on a day that focused on issues like the crackdown on illegal immigrants, foreclosures across the country, gay rights and jobs.
  • Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio will give the Democratic convention's keynote address, making him the first Latino to step into the role that put Barack Obama in the national spotlight eight years ago, Manny Fernandez writes.

Around the Web

  • Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu wrote an op-ed for The Observer newspaper saying that former President George W. Bush and former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain should be tried for war crimes.
  • After the Republican National Convention proved that unscripted mishaps can throw off even the best political choreography, Politico listed five potential land mines that Democrats may want to watch out for in Charlotte.