Democrats to highlight Obama's tough decisions as DNC kicks off

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (CNN) -- Facing a close election and Republican attacks that they have made things worse while in power, Democrats seek to emphasize the tough decisions President Barack Obama has made and additional steps needed to bolster the middle class at their three-day national convention that begins Tuesday, September 4th.

The political conclave that will formally nominate Obama for a second term serves as a response to last week's Republican convention that nominated Mitt Romney as the GOP challenger in November.

Senior campaign officials told CNN on condition of not being identified the convention has three main objectives -- to outline the clear choice facing voters, to highlight Obama's leadership in championing necessary but politically unpopular steps such as health care reform and the auto industry bailout, and to present a detailed plan for creating jobs for the middle class.

Featured speakers for the first night include for Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and first lady Michelle Obama, who will "tell a personal story about the president as only she can," one of the Obama campaign officials said.

Obama told supporters at a campaign event in Norfolk, Virginia, that viewers would be hearing Tuesday night from "the star" of his family.

"I'm going to be at home, watching it with my girls and I'm going to try not to let them see their daddy cry, because when Michelle starts talking, I get all misty," he said.

Former President Bill Clinton headlines the second night with a speech formally nominating the president, and Obama concludes the convention with his nationally televised acceptance speech on Thursday night.

Democrats have released their party platform that focuses on improving the economic situation for middle-class Americans, and also contains language endorsing same-sex marriage and abortion rights that directly contrasts with the Republican platform adopted last week.

"It's going to be up to you. You'll make the choice," Obama told the Norfolk State University crowd Tuesday in framing the election as a decision between starkly different visions for the country's direction.

"We're going to lay out the case for moving the economy forward. President Obama and speakers throughout the week will talk about and have an honest conversation about where we were when he first took office and where we are now after four years of his policies and 29 straight months of job growth in the private sector," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, told CNN Tuesday.

Romney's campaign is focused on the question of whether Obama has made life better for Americans, arguing that continued high unemployment and a sluggish economic recovery from the 2008 recession show that White House policies have failed to deliver promised results.

The "are you better off" strategy was famously employed in 1980 by Ronald Reagan, who asked voters that question when running against incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter at a time of national economic woes. Reagan went on to win, and the Romney campaign has repeatedly invoked his name this year while seeking to link Obama and Carter as failed leaders.

GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan has led efforts to link Obama with the Carter legacy, telling a campaign stop Tuesday in Westlake, Ohio, that "when it comes to jobs, President Obama makes the Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days."

"If we fired Jimmy Carter, then why would we rehire Barack Obama now?" Ryan said to cheers.

The Democratic platform points to accomplishments made over the past four years, but argues for a second Obama term by saying more work remains to be done on fixing the economy and making the country more secure. It also pins the blame for rising deficits and debt, as well as chronic high unemployment, on former President George W. Bush's administration.

On Tuesday night, Strickland will tell how Obama's decision to bail out the struggling auto industry saved vital jobs and kept a mainstay of the U.S. economy afloat, the senior campaign officials said. The goal is to contrast a politically unpopular decision -- spending tax dollars to help a private industry -- in contrast to Romney's call at the time to let General Motors go bankrupt. Romney now says he advocated a managed bankruptcy similar to the eventual result under Obama.

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have fought back against the GOP attack line, telling supporters that the nation is better off now than it was when their administration took office in January 2009.

In Norfolk Tuesday, Obama criticized Romney for failing to detail his economic plans, calling them "retreads of the same old polices that have been sticking it to the middle class for years." He cited the 2010 health care reform law he championed and financial industry reforms that followed the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 as examples of accomplishments under his leadership that Romney opposes and has pledged to repeal.

Biden led an effort to sharpen the message of Democrats after other senior party members struggled to formulate a definitive answer to the question of whether voters should feel better off since Obama took office.

"America is better off today than ... when they left," Biden told a Labor Day campaign event in Detroit, referring to the state of the nation the Obama administration inherited from the Bush White House.

"You want to know whether we are better off?" Biden asked, offering a favorite campaign line. "I've got a 'better off' -- Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive!"

The back-and-forth between the campaigns is part of their competition on how the election gets framed in the minds of voters. Republicans want it to be a referendum on Obama's presidency, while Democrats seek a choice between differing political ideologies on the size and role of government.

In particular, Republicans seek to shrink the size of government and end chronic federal deficits and rising national debt through reduced spending, reforming entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and slashing taxes on businesses and individuals as a spur for economic growth.

Obama and Democrats argue that a deficit-reduction plan also needs additional revenue as part of the equation, and they propose allowing tax rates on income of more than $250,000 for families and $200,000 for individuals to return to higher levels from the 1990s.

Republicans oppose any kind of tax increase, and the impasse over that issue has been the main impediment to a comprehensive deficit-reduction agreement during Obama's first term.

The race overall is very tight, with a poll Monday indicating Romney holds a slight advantage in North Carolina. Obama narrowly won the battleground state four years ago, becoming the first Democrat to carry it in a presidential election since Carter in 1976.

Meanwhile, Ryan continued to be hounded by false statements in his convention speech last week, coming out again Tuesday to defend a line in his speech that appeared to blame Obama for the closure of a General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin. An announcement that the plant would close preceded Obama's election.

"What I was saying is the president ought to be held to account for broken promises," Ryan said on NBC. "After the plant was shut down, he said he would lead efforts to restart the plant. It's still idle."

Ryan also addressed his erroneous claim to have run a three-hour marathon in the past.

"I thought I ran an ordinary, kind of normal time, and I thought that was an ordinary time, until my brother showed me a three-hour marathon is crazy fast," Ryan responded when asked about the marathon claim in an interview with WTOL. "I ran a four-hour marathon. And so it's just the fact that I did this 22 years ago, and I forgot what my time was and that's what I thought it was."

At a convention breakfast Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius took aim at Ryan over the marathon flap.

"I must confess, I do not do an under-three-hour marathon," Sebelius joked to the Ohio delegation. "Anyone who starts with the notion that you have to make up your marathon time tells you all you need to know about Paul Ryan."

CNN's Adam Aigner-Treworgy, Kevin Liptak, Peter Hamby, Sarah Aarthun and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.

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