CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Bill Clinton was set to take center stage Wednesday at the Democratic National Convention in hopes of persuading middle-class voters that Barack Obama could turn a troubled economy around the same way the former president did two decades ago.
The 42nd president remains hugely popular among Democrats, and his speech was hotly anticipated by delegates yearning for a full-throated defense of Obama’s economic policies after months of attacks by Republicans on the No. 1 issue in the presidential race.
“He inherited a deeply damaged economy, put a floor under the crash, began the long, hard road to recovery and laid the foundation for a more modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs, vibrant new businesses and lots of new wealth for the innovators,” Clinton said, according to prepared remarks.
Republicans, he said, are arguing that they “left him a total mess, he hasn’t finished cleaning it up yet, so fire him and put us back in,” Clinton said. “I like the argument for President Obama’s re-election a lot better.”
Delegates continue to be enthralled with the 42nd president, and his speech had been expected to be one of the highlights of the three-day convention.
“He could sneeze and I would applaud,” said Barb Hammon, 60, a nurse and convention delegate from Michigan. “His support of Obama means a lot to me.”
Clinton, who served from 1993 to 2001, came into office at the end of a recession and is credited by some for helping the nation achieve a budget surplus. With millions still out of work and trillion-dollar deficits sending the national debt soaring, Obama is looking for Clinton to vouch for his approach.
On Wednesday, Clinton framed the election as a choice between an Obama second term that he said would boost the middle class and a Romney administration that would not.
“The most important question is, what kind of country do you want to live in?” Clinton said in the prepared remarks. “If you want a you’re-on-your-own, winner-take-all society, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared prosperity and shared responsibility _ a we’re-all-in-this-together society _ you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said that Clinton has “enormous credibility” with voters _ and not just Democrats _ because of his handling of the economy and the national debt.
He “knows how to explain difficult economic ideas in a way that everyone can relate to, not just in a historical context, but in a way that really touches people,” she said. “People trust him on economic issues, and he’s an important person to discuss how we got where we are and what is the choice we need to make between two different directions.”
The second day of the convention included speeches from a slew of elected officials and supporters, including Elizabeth Warren, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, and Sandra Fluke, who sparked criticism from conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh after testifying before Congress in support of Obama’s decision to require some religious employers to offer access to contraception.
There was also a bit of business as Democrats late Wednesday nominated Obama and Vice President Joe Biden as their 2012 White House ticket, with Clinton officially putting Obama’s name into contention.
Biden and first lady Michelle Obama, who spoke Tuesday night, watched the proceedings from the stands. Obama arrived in Charlotte on Wednesday. He and Biden will speak Thursday night speak at Time Warner Cable Arena _ a smaller venue than originally planned.
Convention officials announced Wednesday that the speeches would be moved from an outdoor stadium to the covered arena because the rain that’s fallen since Tuesday is not expected to improve.
Republicans immediately pounced on the announcement, saying Obama could not fill the stadium, which seats 70,000. The arena seats around 20,000. “The Democrats continue to downgrade convention events due to lack of enthusiasm _ this time they are moving out of Bank of America/Panther stadium. Problems filling the seats?” a Republican National Committee statement said.
Campaign officials said they scrapped the stadium reluctantly but had to put safety first.
Clinton could help Obama shore up support among white middle-class voters, whom polls suggest favor Romney. And his appearance marks the latest chapter in a complicated relationship between the two.
There was friction between them stemming from the nasty 2008 presidential primary fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton spoke in favor of Obama at the 2008 convention, but his remarks were limited to an endorsement. This time, it was a full-blown speech in prime time.
The two started to repair the relationship after Obama tapped Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, and they teamed up on policy after the 2010 midterm elections in which Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives and narrowly held onto the Senate _ mirroring Clinton’s 1994 midterm losses.
This year, Clinton has become one of Obama’s key surrogates, appearing in TV ads in swing states, campaigning for him and headlining fundraisers.
Obama asked Clinton in July to speak at the convention, and the former president wrote much of the speech himself.
Clinton, who relishes the limelight, tried to strike a balance between supporting Obama and overshadowing him.
Clinton addressed his hometown Arkansas delegation Tuesday night and pushed back against any suggestion he’d deliver a half-hearted endorsement, delegates said.
“The first thing he said was, ‘I’m not just getting up there to talk, I mean it,’ “ said convention delegate Dianne Curry of Little Rock, Ark. “He sincerely believes in Obama.”
Curry said she expects Clinton to set the stage for Obama’s argument Thursday, complete with economic data that show a steady, if slow, uptick in jobs.
“He’s phenomenal at spelling it out,” she said. “We had a balanced budget when he was in office, and if we had stayed on that track we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now.”
©2012 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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