CHARLOTTE - First lady Michelle Obama closed the first night of the Democratic National Convention on a warm-hearted, upbeat note. But it contrasted an evening filled with harsh salvos against Mitt Romney that blasted the challenger as out of touch with mainstream Americans.
After speakers from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to Newark (N.J.) Mayor Cory Booker blasted Romney and the Republican Party for everything from undermining the economic recovery to favoring the wealthy over the middle class, the First Lady's speech was soft in tone. Yet it was strong in her belief that the country was better served by her husband's humble beginnings, "the guy who'd picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger side door... the guy whose proudest possession was a coffee table he'd found in a dumpster, and whose only pair of decent shoes was half a size too small."
The message - much like Ann Romney's speech at last week's GOP convention that revealed her husband's role as husband and father - was a charm offensive aimed at reminding voters not just where Obama came from, but his core values, accomplishments and plans for the next four years.
"I have seen firsthand that being president doesn't change who you are - no, it reveals who you are,'' Michelle Obama said. "Barack knows what it means when the middle class struggles...he's lived it." Yet she also emphasized that unlike Romney, who became a multi-millionaire through private equity firm Bain Capital, Obama had shunned opportunities for high-paying jobs for a life devoted to public service.
"I love that for Barack, there is no such thing as us and them,'' she said. "I love that even in the toughest moments where we are all sweatin' it, he just keeps moving forward with patience and wisdom and courage and grace. He reminds me that we're playing a long game here and eventually, we get there."
With the November election a virtual tossup and Obama's re-election bid crimped by an anemic economy and stubbornly high unemployment, most of the night's speakers were far less cordial. Many offered sharp contrasts between a Romney presidency and four more years of Obama - and who would better serve the middle class, women and minorities.
In an interview with USA TODAY aboard Air Force One, Obama telegraphed the party's mission this week: defending his record, attacking Romney and convincing voters that America is better off than it was four years ago. The central themes: Obama kept the economy from plunging into recession, bailed out the now-revived automobile industry, revamped health care, ended the war in Iraq and gave the orders to eliminate terrorist Osama bin Laden.
"Gov. Romney spent a lot of time talking about himself and he spent a lot of time talking about me. He didn't spend a lot of time talking about the American people and how their lives will get better," Obama told USA TODAY. "I guess their premise is that the American people will be convinced, if we just get rid of Obama, then somehow that will be enough."
San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a rising party star, delivered the keynote address, highlighting Obama's successes, "despite incredible odds and united Republican opposition."
He was less kind to Romney.
"Republicans tell us that if the most prosperous among us do even better, that somehow the rest of us will, too," Castro said. "Folks, we've heard that before. First, they called it 'trickle-down.' Then 'supply side.' Now it's 'Romney-Ryan.' Or is it 'Ryan-Romney.' Either way, their theory has been tested. It failed. our economy failed. The middle class paid the price. Your family paid the price. Mitt Romney just doesn't get it."
The anti-Romney tone was set early, and often.
"If Mitt was Santa Claus, he'd fire the reindeer and outsource the elves," former Ohio governor Ted Strickland told a roaring crowd of delegates.
Democrats even turned to liberal icon Edward Kennedy- who died in 2009 - to blast Romney's shifting views, a criticism that has haunted the candidate. As part of a video tribute, clips from the Kennedy vs. Romney 1994 Senate race debate showed Kennedy schooling his challenger. "I am pro-choice. My opponent is multiple choice," Kennedy said in the clip.
The Romney campaign said rolling out the Kennedy clip was a low blow.
Reid delivered some of the evening's harshest comments.
"Today's Republican Party believes in two sets of rules: one for millionaires and billionaires, and another for the middle class,'' he said. "And this year, they've nominated the strongest proponent - the clearest beneficiary - of this rigged game: Mitt Romney."
Said Booker: "Our platform is about moving America and our economy forward. We must choose forward. We must be inclusive. We must choose growing together."
Obama campaigned in battleground state Virginia earlier Tuesday.
Republicans are "counting on you, maybe not to vote for Romney, but they're counting on you to feel discouraged," he told a crowd at Norfolk State University. "And they figure if you don't vote, then big oil will write our energy future, and insurance companies will write our health care plans, and politicians will dictate what a woman can or can't do when it comes to her own health. They're counting on you just to accept their version of things."
Obama is scheduled to make his party acceptance speech Thursday at the 74,000-seat outdoor Bank of America stadium. There's a 40% chance of rain showers. Obama spokesman Brent Colburn said severe weather, such as lightning, would push the event indoors.
Wherever it's held, the speech will provide a "road map" for Obama's plans to restore security to the hard-pressed middle class, campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said.
The president and aides have acknowledged that Democrats are likely to be outspent by Romney in key battleground states. So the three-day convention amounts to some much-needed PR.
"We've got some truth-telling to do," Virginia's U.S. Sen. Mark Warner told Florida delegates earlier Tuesday. "America is better off today than it was four years ago when this president took over."
Modesto Tico Valle, an Illinois delegate from Chicago, said the convention is key to Obama's re-election.
"Most definitely, President Obama must say loudly and strongly that we are much better off today than four years ago," said Valle, the 48-year-old CEO of Center on Halstead, an advocate organization for the lesbian, gay and transgender community. "The economy is slowly recovering from where it was when we got it, jobs are slowly coming back. There has been great progress made in LGBT and women's rights, among seniors and with health care. The choice is clear between Obama and the dark ages. He is the one that is moving us forward."
Democrats released a party platform for ratification Tuesday underscoring Obama's call for higher taxes on the wealthy and support for gay marriage. And Tuesday morning, the party made its case for Obama through U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren on morning TV talk shows. Warren, who is challenging first-term Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, conceded that many Americans have it tough, but said Obama offers the better vision going forward. "Republicans are not helping us get back," she said.
Republican GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, also making the talk-show rounds, continued to hammer Obama's record on the economy. "Four years into a presidency and it's incomplete?" he asked. "The president is asking people just to be patient with him?"
Romney's campaign reinforced that message with a new Internet video answering Obama's statement that "there are always going to be bumps on the road to recovery." The video showcases a series of ordinary Americans who've lost their jobs saying, "I'm an American, not a bump in the road."
Maryland congressman Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said many of the economic assumptions built into the Romney-Ryan budget plan just don't add up.
"I call it marathon math," Van Hollen told USA TODAY, referring to Ryan's claim that he once ran a marathon an hour faster than he did.
"If there's one thing you need to do on the budget committee, it's learn how to count," he said. "There's a lot of funny math in the Ryan budget."
There were small protests throughout the day Tuesday, with 13 arrests around the city, according to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
Ten were illegal immigrants who sat at an intersection near the Time Warner Cable Arena convention site and charged with impeding traffic. The group had completed a cross-country bus tour called the "Undocubus" - a play on their undocumented status - that originated in Phoenix and ended in Charlotte. They are trying to draw attention to harsh immigration laws in Arizona, Alabama and Georgia.
It was unclear Tuesday evening whether the 10 would be placed in deportation proceedings. The Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Department has an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to assist in identifying illegal immigrants. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police spokesman Rob Tufano said they would alert the sheriff's department of the arrests, but he did not know how the department would handle their cases.
Contributing: Gregory Korte, David Jackson, Alan Gomez, Catalina Camia, Martha T. Moore and John McAuliff in Charlotte; the Associated Press