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Ryan compares Obama's record on economy to Jimmy Carter's

CHARLOTTE, N.C., — Paul Ryan compared President Obama's economic record to Jimmy Carter's on Monday, saying neither president improved people's lives.

“Every president since the great depression could run on a record saying you are better off than you were four years ago,” Ryan said. “Except for Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.”

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The Republican vice presidential nominee was in Greenville, N.C., only 230 miles from where Democrats are holding their national convention.

He repeatedly looked to tie Obama to the one-term Democratic president, who has become a frequent touchstone for Republicans in this campaign cycle.

Carter will speak to Democratic delegates via satellite on Tuesday, the first day of the convention.

Ryan said in 1980, under the Carter administration, 330,000 businesses filed for bankruptcy, compared to 1.4 million in 2011 “under President Obama’s failed leadership,” and that mortgage delinquencies have ballooned from 77,000 to 3 million over the same time period.

“Simply put, the Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days compared to where we are now,” Ryan said.

But whether he was touting Mitt Romney’s record as a governor, or going through the Romney campaign’s five point economic plan, Ryan continuously returned to the “are you better off message.”

“We’re going to hear a lot of words from Charlotte,” he continued. “We’re not going to hear evidence and facts about how people are better off.”

“The president cannot tell you that you’re better off,” Ryan added. “And if we want to improve things, then how would rehiring the same administration do that? It wouldn’t.”

Republicans are pushing the "better off" message this week as Democrats gather to re-anoint Obama as their nominee.

Obama’s senior surrogates on Monday were pushing the message that Americans are better off, but it was a reactive response to Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley’s (D) fumbling of the question Sunday on “Face the Nation.”

“No,” replied O’Malley, a prominent Obama surrogate, when asked if people were better off today than they were four years ago, “but that’s not the question of this election.”

“Without a doubt, we are not as well off as we were before George Bush brought us the Bush job losses,” O'Malley added.

O’Malley soon backtracked, and Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter and Democratic National Committee communications director Brad Woodhouse hit the airwaves Monday to answer the question affirmatively and without caveat.

Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, echoed much of Ryan’s remarks, including the attempts to link Obama’s record with Carter’s.

In town to launch a GOP counteroffensive to the Democratic convention, Priebus noted that Obama surrogates like O’Malley were backtracking on their claims that people in the U.S. were not better off than they were four years ago.

The RNC chairman derisively added that must mean that millions of Americans had suddenly found jobs, and that deficits, poverty and gas prices had all fallen.

“All in the last 24 hours,” Priebus said at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on the site of the Democratic gathering. “Yes, this morning Democrats were in desperate damage control. Interestingly and bizarrely, that we now are better off after four years of Barack Obama.”

Priebus also suggested that this week would prove to be a stark contrast to the Democrats’ euphoric 2008 convention in Denver, and even tried to use Obama’s famous mantra of hope and change against him.

“Today, the thrill and pixie dust of Barack Obama’s presidency is gone,” Priebus said, flanked by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah.) “Americans feel no hope and have seen change for the worse.”

The timing of O’Malley’s comment couldn’t have been better for Republicans, who on Monday launched an aggressive counter-message based on the “are you better off” question. Priebus said it would be the GOP’s theme all this week.

The debate over whether the nation is better off now than it was four years ago is critical to whether Obama will win another four-year term. Republicans say the answer is clearly a no, and their chief argument is that the nation’s unemployment rate remains above 8 percent while the nation's debt has climbed to nearly $16 trillion.

Democrats argue Obama inherited a country in free-fall from President George W. Bush, and that he has begun to turn it around over the past four years. Among the points they highlight are Obama's rescue of the auto industry, his financial reform legislation and the fact that the economy has added jobs every month for nearly two and a half years.

Still, the conflicting response highlights the challenge faced by the Obama campaign as it seeks to tout its record on the economy while also acknowledging continuing concern among voters over the recovery.

That message is further complicated by a 2011 interview in which Obama himself said voters were not better off economically.

“Well, I don't think they're better off than they were four years ago,” the president told ABC News last October.

“They're not better off than they were before Lehman's collapse, before the financial crisis, before this extraordinary recession that we're going through,” he continued. “I think that what we've seen is that we've been able to make steady progress to stabilize the economy, but the unemployment rate is still way too high. And that's why it's so critical for us to make sure that we are taking every action we can take to put people back to work.”

Obama and Romney enter the week tied nationally in the polls at 46 percent each, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls.

— Bernie Becker contributed

— This story was updated at 3:06 p.m.