Can he win them over again? Barack Obama's uphill climb begins

President's election team set out to catch up with Romney – but stumble over their man's economic record

Charlotte, North Carolina

On the eve of their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is billed as a riposte to last week's Republican extravaganza in Tampa, Democrats were struggling to extricate themselves from quicksand yesterday and answer the charge that ordinary Americans are worse off now than they were four years ago.

The normally disciplined Democratic machine was in urgent damage-control mode after three of its top lieutenants seemed to stumble over the weekend when challenged in television interviews to answer the question that is at the heart of this election: has life improved in the four years since President Barack Obama was elected?

"No," was the initial response of Governor Martin O'Malley, of Maryland, when it was put to him on Sunday by one interviewer. Two other leading Obama aides, David Plouffe and David Axelrod, also seemed to prevaricate on the matter.

"The average American recognises that it took years to create the crisis that erupted in 2008 and peaked in January of 2009," Mr Axelrod said. "And it's gonna take some time to work through it."

The Democrats are set to kick off tonight with Michelle Obama taking the podium to bolster the already significant advantage that the party ticket has among women. A similar task to fence in Hispanic voters will be left to Julian Castro, the Mayor of San Antonio, Texas. A fast-rising star in the party, he will fill tonight's important keynote slot, the same one given to Mr Obama at the 2004 Democratic convention when he instantly became a national figure.

If the Republicans are disappointed by what seems to have been only a modest bounce in the polls for Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan after their convention last week, they leapt with glee yesterday through the window left wide open for them by Messrs Plouffe, Axelrod and O'Malley. Best of all, it allowed them to refocus attention on the economy and rehearse their claim that Mr Obama has failed to haul it out of the doldrums.

Among the first to pounce was Mr Romney, who issued a statement marking the Labour Day bank holiday with an undisguised reference to the theme. The holiday, he said, is "a chance to celebrate the strong American work ethic", adding: "For far too many Americans, today is another day of worrying when their next paycheque will come."

While Mr Romney himself is expected to keep a fairly low profile as the Democrats rally this week, his election team will do all it can to play interference by plugging away on the "are-you-better-off" question. That started yesterday as Mr Ryan dipped into North Carolina with a campaign event in Greenville.

Democrat aides were sent back to the TV studios yesterday to correct the mistakes of 24 hours earlier. "Are we better off today than we were four years ago when President Obama was elected?" Stephanie Cutter, a spokeswoman, asked. "Absolutely. Let me just walk you through what life was like four years ago."

She pointed to the car-industry rescue and contrasted the 3.5 million jobs lost in the six months before Mr Obama was elected with the 4.5 million he has created since coming to office.

"We are clearly better off as a country because we're now creating jobs rather than losing them," Mr O'Malley said on CNN yesterday.

Politesse had clearly abandoned the Republican campaign. Determined to crash the party, they were busy setting up shop yesterday in the Nascar Hall of Fame next to the Democratic Convention venue, the Time Warner Arena, in hopes of attracting journalists with offerings of aggressive counterspin. "We're going to be ready to respond to everything that the Democrats say, and I think that the real issue this week, and what you're seeing happening yesterday on the Sunday-morning talk shows… are you better off today than you were three or four years ago?" Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus said.

"Issues come and go and they will, but at the end of the day this is going to be about facts."

John Burton, compared the Republicans and their alleged tendency to speak mistruths to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis.

"They lie and they don't care if people think they lie… Joseph Goebbels – it's the big lie, you keep repeating it," he said at a breakfast for California delegates to the convention. He made particular reference to Mr Ryan, who uttered "a bold-faced lie and he doesn't care that it was a lie. That was Goebbels, the big lie", Mr Burton said.

The Democrats chose North Carolina for the convention to bolster Mr Obama's hopes of taking it on 6 November as he did, by a slim margin, in 2008.

But a Charlotte Observer poll released yesterday saw him trailing Mr Romney in the state by four points.

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