By Amie Parnes - 09/01/12 10:00 AM EDT
Team Obama promises it will fill every one of the seats in Charlotte’s mammoth football stadium Thursday night when President Obama closes the Democratic National Convention with a speech accepting his party’s nomination.
For weeks, Democrats have been concerned about filling Bank of America Stadium, home to the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. They feared a devastating image of an enthusiasm gap if Obama spoke to empty upper decks at the venue.
“We’re confident we’ll be full,” Jen Psaki, the traveling Obama press secretary, told The Hill late last week. “We have a great ground operation in North Carolina and we’ve registered more voters than any other state.
“Our goal is to leave North Carolina better than we came in,” Psaki added.
Obama set himself up for a challenge when he decided to recreate the image that closed his 2008 convention — an address to a packed, enthusiastic crowd at Denver’s Invesco Field.
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This speech comes four years into Obama’s presidency, and in the midst of a slow economy that is the Republican ticket’s No. 1 argument for replacing the Democratic president.
Obama’s supporters say the most pivotal part of Thursday night’s event is the president’s speech and not the optics and spectacle surrounding it, but they acknowledge a partially-filled stadium would give Republicans more fodder in a state where Romney leads in most polls.
“This isn’t 2008 and this isn’t Colorado,” said one former administration official. “And I think the fear is that the campaign aimed too high on this one. After all, this is a southern state, which leans red and only helped Obama win in 2008 by very slim margins.
Steve Elmendorf, who served as deputy campaign manager for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, acknowledged that filling the stadium is a “challenge.”
“They’re taking on something that’s hard to do,” Elmendorf said. “And they’re doing it in a state that isn’t one of their core states. But I give them credit for trying.”
Two weeks ago convention organizers began making tickets available for the acceptance speech at the stadium.
Team Obama’s “9-3-1” program, which provides supporters with one ticket to the acceptance speech after they volunteer for nine hours over three shifts, an effort the campaign says will expand its grassroots, will also help fill empty seats.
Organizers say the efforts are intended to allow as many supporters as possible to hear the president.
Last week, credentials were handed out on a first come, first served basis, a campaign official said, with North Carolinians across the state having the opportunity to line up to receive a credential.
“Demand for these credentials was truly amazing,” the campaign official said. “Tens of thousands of North Carolinians received credentials, making this truly the most open and accessible convention in history.”
While the campaign won’t say how many tickets for the speech have been handed out to date, they say credential distribution has ended for the time being, with the caveat that anyone in the state who is still interested in attending can sign up through the “I’m there” program to know if and when additional seats will be given out.
Republicans say they don’t have any doubt that Team Obama will fill the stadium to the rafters but that the efforts will be contrived.
“The rule is standing-room-only,” said Ken Lundberg, a GOP strategist. “The campaign knows that, and there’s no question they will fill the stadium. If they have to bus union groups from Miami, New York and Kalamazoo into Charlotte, that’s what they’ll do.”
Several union officials and others close to labor say they hadn’t heard anything about busing in union members to help fill seats for the speech.
But Lundberg added that the “key indicator that night will be energy.
“People at the closing speech are the president’s strongest supporters; if their enthusiasm is anything short of the night Obama first won the office, that’s a clear sign of trouble,” he said.
Campaign officials say they are guaranteeing a memorable final night in the swing state.
“President Obama’s speech on the final night of the convention will be truly be historic, and we are so glad that so many North Carolinians will be there,” one campaign official said.
This story was updated at 9:40 a.m.