CHARLOTTE, North Carolina: Democrats launched President Barack Obama on his uncertain bid for re-election as they opened their national convention Tuesday, casting the president as someone who understands the struggles of ordinary Americans while depicting Republican rival Mitt Romney as privileged and out-of-touch.
The opening night of the three-day convention was effectively a rebuttal to last week's Republican convention in which Obama was depicted as driving down the U.S. economy by favoring a welfare state over private enterprise. Democrats cast Obama as the champion of the "American dream" in which even the poorest can achieve wealth and success. Under Romney's policies, they said, only the rich would prosper.
The star speaker, Michelle Obama, recalled her husband as a young man who drove a rusty car and wore ill-fitting shoes when they first dated. "Barack knows the American Dream because he's lived it," she said.
Democrats looked to use the convention and its national television coverage to help Obama recapture the hearts of Americans once drawn to his message of hope and change, but now weary after years of economic weakness and political squabbles.
Polls show Obama and Romney locked in a tight race ahead of the November vote. While Obama is seen as more likable and better able to connect with middle-class Americans, Romney, a wealthy businessman and former Massachusetts governor, is seen as the better candidate for improving the economy, the biggest issue in the race.
Without ever mentioning her husband's rival by name, Michelle Obama took aim at Republican claims that Romney would carry over his success in business to the presidency.
"For Barack, success isn't about how much money you make, it's about the differences you make in people's lives," she said.
The evening's other top speaker, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, was more direct. "Mitt Romney just doesn't get it," he said.
After highlighting the humble roots of his Mexican-born grandmother, Castro ridiculed the advice Romney gave at a campaign event that students could borrow money from their parents to start businesses.
"Gee, why didn't I think of that?," Castro said. "Some people are lucky enough to borrow money from their parents, but that shouldn't determine whether you can pursue your dreams."
Castro's selection to deliver the prestigious keynote address during prime viewing time was a sign of his rising stardom in the party and the increasing importance of the Hispanic vote, which Democrats are relying on to win several battleground states in the West.
The convention continues Wednesday with roll call votes formally nominating Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and a speech by Bill Clinton, the popular former president. The climax will be Obama's acceptance speech at a 74,000-seat football stadium on Thursday.
That speech will seek to recreate some of the grandeur of Obama's acceptance address in a Colorado stadium four years ago. At the time, the United States was in the midst of a devastating financial crisis while unpopular wars were dragging on in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama - young, magnetic and eloquent - captured the imagination of many Americans as the first black nominee of a major party. He promised a fresh start after eight years of George W. Bush's presidency and new hope for the economy.
Obama did withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq and the United States emerged from the recession. But economic growth has been tepid and unemployment is high at 8.3 percent. Though he stepped up drone strikes on suspected terrorists and gave the order that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, Republicans cast him as a weak leader. He won congressional approval of an overhaul of the U.S health care system, but his plan remains largely unpopular. Meanwhile, some Democrats have been disappointed by Obama's failure to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and what they see as lackluster action on issues such as climate change and immigration reform.
Outside the Democratic convention hall, police arrested 10 men and women who blocked an intersection in what they said was a protest of the nation's immigration laws. The 10 said they were illegal immigrants.
But inside, delegates cheered as a parade of speakers extolled Obama's support for abortion rights and gay marriage, for consumer protections enacted under his health care law and for the successful auto industry bailout he pushed through Congress in his first year in office.
The two conventions highlight the contrasting visions of government that voters will face in the Nov. 6 election. Romney's Republicans, increasingly guided by the anti-tax tea party movement, want to minimize the role of government, which it sees as an obstacle to enterprise and liberty. Obama's Democrats see government as a potential force for good, helping the downtrodden and providing the education and infrastructure needed to help the country prosper.
At a time that both parties are courting the votes of women, who tend to favor Obama, both conventions featured the candidates' wives lovingly praising their husbands as devoted, trustworthy family men. In her speech, Michelle Obama mixed the personal and the political.
"Today, after so many struggles and triumphs and moments that have tested my husband in ways I never could have imagined, I have seen firsthand that being president doesn't change who you are - it reveals who you are," she said.
Candidates traditionally get a bounce in the polls from political conventions, though there is little sign that Romney improved his standing after the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida. Once dramatic events for selecting candidates and debating issues, political conventions are now carefully scripted shows put on by the parties with little spontaneity - making them less compelling television programming.
The campaign promises to be the most expensive ever and Republicans already have a financial advantage. Romney has been raising more than Obama and the president's advisers are now publicly acknowledging that Obama will likely be outspent in this election.