By Niall Stanage and Amie Parnes - 09/03/12 09:00 AM EDT
Democrats begin their convention Monday cautiously confident that President Obama will win a second term.
But the next four days, and especially Obama’s speech Thursday, will be crucial, given the tight race and the broadly successful Republican National Convention that took place in Tampa, Fla., last week.
Obama’s supporters know that nothing can be taken for granted, especially because voters will almost certainly make their choice at a time when the unemployment rate is around 8 percent — and no incumbent since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has won in those circumstances.
In poll after poll, voters say they like Obama more than Mitt Romney.
The president’s paths to victory in the Electoral College are broader and more numerous than they are for the newly crowned Republican nominee.
And some of Obama’s signature accomplishments, notably the bailout of the auto industry, could assist him in the crucial swing states of the industrial Midwest.
Add it all together, and Democrats believe the election is there for the winning — just about.
“You have to feel pretty confident — but not too confident, because there are some worrisome things out there, like the right-wing super-PAC money,” Democratic strategist Doug Thornell said. “It’s not a time to be popping champagne corks. But he is in a strong position and is just going to have to solidify his support.”
A post-convention polling “bounce” for Romney might already be under way. But, so long as Obama receives a similar infusion of energy leaving Charlotte, N.C., at the end of this week, Democrats will be satisfied.
The small advantage enjoyed by Obama vindicates his team’s campaign strategy, which has striven from the start to portray Romney as unacceptable, in part because of his work with Bain Capital.
The anti-Bain element of the Team Obama effort drew criticism, implicit or explicit, from some high-profile Democrats, including former President Clinton and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
A number of prominent speakers pushed back against it in Tampa last week, including Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who drew cheers by asserting flatly during his speech, “Being successful in business? That’s a good thing.”
Those comments could be seen as backhanded proof that the Obama attacks have been working, however.
“The parameters are already set,” Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf noted approvingly. “I don’t think they need to do anything different. I think they’re winning.”
Still, Democrats voice plenty of caveats.
Yet another lurch into crisis in the eurozone could have effects on these shores. A flare-up in the Middle East, perhaps involving Iran or Israel, could undercut the president’s strong image on foreign policy.
Most of all, Obama supporters fret about the large cash deficit they face from the combined forces of the Romney campaign and outside groups supporting the Republican. One recent email from Obama seeking donations of $3 or more came with the gloomy subject line, “The end?”
Independent observers also caution that Obama needs to be aware that the mood of the nation is not averse to jettisoning the incumbent.
“I think he’s got something to worry about,” said David Yepsen, the veteran Iowa-based political reporter who is now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at the University of Southern Illinois.
“On Main Street, people are not in a good mood. They are ready to get rid of the president, if Romney can position himself as a credible alternative.”
Still, Yepsen added, “People like Obama — and that’s a real asset.”
The president’s assets incorporate Electoral College calculus as well as charisma.
Romney needs to win more swing states than Obama does. If the president were to just hold Florida, for example, the Republican’s path to victory becomes almost impassably steep.
Thornell said that even though he expected election night to be a “white-knuckle” experience, he took comfort from the fact that “Romney’s path is narrow. For Obama and his campaign, there are a number of combinations.”
Democrats are bolstered by the president’s advantages among female voters and Hispanics, the fastest-growing ethnic bloc in the nation. But there are worries about a drop in turnout, and some suggest the negative tone of the campaign to date might hamper Obama when it comes to voter enthusiasm — especially given that his 2008 bid was fueled by optimism and a call for a more elevated politics.
“He has become a symbol of a more hopeful way of looking at what we are as Americans,” said Boston University Professor Tobe Berkovitz, an expert in political communications. “But it is then a problem for him if he is revealed to be a bare-knuckle brawler, just like the rest of them.”
Thursday’s speech provides Obama with an opportunity to recapture some of the glamour of four years ago.
But especially after the GOP’s convention in Tampa, don’t be surprised if he shows some bare knuckles, too.