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Democrats face tough decision on whether to move Obama speech

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Democratic officials face a difficult decision on whether to move President Obama's acceptance speech indoors to a smaller venue.

A forecast of possible rain showers threatens to dampen Obama’s big night on Thursday, when he is scheduled to close the Democratic National Convention with a speech at Bank of America Stadium, which holds more than 73,000 seats.

Moving Obama to the much smaller Time Warner Cable Arena, which holds about 22,000 seats, would be a disappointment after Obama accepted his party’s nomination in 2008 at Denver’s Invesco Field.

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The careful choreography of the convention is intended to set up Obama’s outdoor speech as the big, climactic moment — one that would be muffled if it were moved indoors to a much smaller venue.

On Tuesday, Democratic officials described a “fluid” situation and said they don't have a timeline for a decision. They suggested a number of factors would be considered, the primary among those being safety.

Officials have maintained they had no plans to change the venue, except in the event of “severe” rain and the need to ensure the safety of visitors from lightning strikes.

“The convention proceedings at Bank of America Stadium will take place rain or shine, similar to other events at the stadium,” said Joanne Peters, the Democratic National Convention Committee spokeswoman. “Of course, safety is our top priority, and if we have to activate a contingency plan due to severe weather, we will make a determination with enough time for arrangements to be made.”

Beyond the safety concerns, the possibility of a downpour could also lead to undesirable televised images of Obama speaking to a half-empty football stadium. Thunderstorms soaked Charlotte on Tuesday and intermittent rain broke up CarolinaFest on Monday. 

Democratic veterans of presidential campaigns sympathized with Team Obama’s dilemma.

"It's not ideal," said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist who worked on the Al Gore presidential campaign. "It's definitely not the way you want it to go, but it comes with the risk of choosing to do it outside."

Simmons predicted that the campaign will keep the outdoor venue option for "as long as possible" until it can determine what might actually happen on Thursday night.

He surmised that if it's pouring rain, "my guess is they reconsider." A sprinkle of rain, he said, would be a different story.

He added, "I don't know what the alternative is. There aren't very many good options."

It’s unclear when officials would need to make a decision. Democrats plan to bus in thousands of people to the home stadium of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers to ensure every seat is filled.

Television news organizations said they’re prepared to air Obama’s speech from either location.

“If there’s a change in plans, CNN will roll with the punches,” the network's Washington bureau chief, Sam Feist, said. He said the news network is planning to anchor Thursday’s speech from two platforms inside the stadium but can pivot to both the CNN Grill and its arena setup if need be.

A Fox News spokeswoman said Thursday’s threats of rain are “minor compared to what we faced last week with Hurricane Isaac.”

The network is “prepared for any changes ... [and] rain or shine, the show will go on,” she said.

Christian Tours, the Charlotte bus company responsible for the 30 shuttles transporting the thousands of delegates attending the week’s events, also saw little need to change its plans drastically for any rain.

“I don’t really think it’d be that big of an issue,” said transportation manager and dispatcher Shannon Sigmon.

Jane Watson, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s senior events director, agreed that the convention committee should wait to make any changes until the last minute “because of how significant [Thursday night] is.”

She has never known a Panthers game to be canceled because of lightning, but she said the NFL’s lightning contingency plan for the stadium is to have the teams exit the field and the fans take cover in the concourses.

Watson suggested that the Democratic convention committee keep the stadium open even if it moves Obama’s speech inside. That way, if the weather does clear, the committee could set up a Jumbotron for viewers and have the president make an appearance in the stadium after his speech.

“That’s the only scenario I could imagine in which it’d be a win-win,” she said.

Some say the imagery of Obama standing in any rain — even a sprinkle — could be an optics nightmare.

"I can see the RNC ads now," said one former administration official. " 'Raining on Obama's parade,' 'Look at all those empty seats.' 'What happened to the rock-star president who could sell out a stadium?' That all could happen.”

But Steve Elmendorf, the deputy campaign manager of John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, said even if it rains, it's "not a big deal."

"Rain happens, and the venue is less important than the substance," he said.

For weeks, some Democrats have expressed concerns about filling the larger venue. Asked on Tuesday at an ABC News-Yahoo event if Team Obama would fill the stadium, campaign manager Jim Messina avoided the question.

"We're really excited about it," he said, adding that the stadium event was a part of a larger grassroots effort to get more supporters involved.

But Stephanie Cutter, the deputy campaign manager, quickly chimed in.

"I don't think we'll have a problem filling it," she said.

— This story was posted at 2:44 p.m. and updated at 6:19 p.m.