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Obama closes, but with less lustrous speech

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — President Obama brought the Democratic convention to a close here on Thursday night with a speech that was forceful, animated and error-free — but not among his most lustrous rhetorical moments.

The 38-minute speech highlighted Obama’s accomplishments and drew broad outlines of what a second White House term would bring. It was jam-packed with stark, sometimes mocking, contrasts between his policies and those of his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney.

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But it is not likely to be the most memorable speech from the three-day convention, and it was only in the closing minutes that Obama turned to the more elevated oratory that powered his historic journey to the Oval Office in 2008.

While the reaction from the capacity crowd packed into the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte was ecstatic, initial judgments from pundits and across social media were more muted.

On CNN, Democratic strategist James Carville said it was “probably not the best speech of the convention” even as he praised its “muscular tone.”

Obama referred again and again to the election as a “choice” — a word he used 10 times.

He told voters that on Nov. 6, “The choice you face won’t be just between two candidates or two parties. It will be a choice between two different paths for America.”

Toward the end of the address, he articulated the difference in more emotive terms.

“If you reject the notion that this nation’s promise is reserved for the few, your voice must be heard in this election,” he said, as the capacity crowd roared in approval.

“If you reject the notion that our government is forever beholden to the highest bidder, you need to stand up in this election.”

From the start of this campaign, Obama and his aides have strived to ensure that voters make a comparative decision between the president and Romney, rather than delivering a stark up or down vote on his first term.

Former President Clinton made juxtapositions between Obama and Romney in explicit and policy-heavy terms on Wednesday night — and first lady Michelle Obama did so in a more implicit, intimate way on Tuesday.

The president brought both strands together at the convention’s conclusion, recalling his grandparents’ struggles to build a middle-class life as he offered several explications of policy.

He boasted of the half million manufacturing jobs that he said had been created nationwide in the past two-and-a-half years, emphasized the new fuel standards his administration had introduced, and promised to set in place plans to recruit 100,000 math and science teachers within 10 years.

Later in his speech, he provided a grim tableau of what, he said, Republicans were proposing:

“I refuse to ask students to pay more for college, or kick children out of Head Start programs, to eliminate health insurance for millions of Americans who are poor and elderly or disabled — all so those with the most can pay less.”

As cheering crescendoed, he added: “I’m not going along with that.”

The Obama who spoke here couched his appeal in more battle-hardened, even grizzled terms than when, as a candidate, he addressed 80,000 people at Invesco Field in Denver four years ago.

Back then, he promised “a new politics for a new time” and said: “I realize that I am not the likeliest candidate for this office. I don’t fit the typical pedigree, and I haven’t spent my career in the halls of Washington. But I stand before you tonight because all across America something is stirring.”

But in the president's own words, “The times have changed, and so have I."

“I'm no longer just a candidate,” he said. “I'm the president.”

In addition to listing his domestic accomplishments, he now presented his experience as an asset.

When it came to foreign policy, he asked voters to “choose leadership that has been tested and proven” — almost the exact antithesis of the 2008 argument he used with such effect against his primary opponent, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton — and mocked Romney’s error-strewn international trip.

“You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally,” he said, as the crowd laughed along gleefully.

Obama’s speech was the climax to a convention that even most independent observers agreed was a successful one for the Democrats.

The event was not without missteps and hiccups: controversy roiled the party platform vote and organizers made a last-minute decision to shelve the plan of having the president speak outdoors at the Bank of America football stadium.

But neither issue rose to the level of the Clint Eastwood debacle that distracted from the last night of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., dissipating the impact of Romney’s most high-profile speech to date.

The energy levels inside the arena in Charlotte were tangibly higher than in Tampa, and the event as a whole put a pep in Democrats’ collective step. It has quieted, at least for now, any suggestion that the Obama-Biden ticket suffers from an enthusiasm gap.

“You guys [in the media] used to ask me about a lack of enthusiasm,” Los Angeles Mayor and Democratic Convention Chairman Antonio Villaraigosa said. “You’re not asking that anymore.”

Whether the ardor so evidently felt by Democrats here also filters out to undecided voters — or even brings those who had previously been leaning toward Romney over to Obama’s side — will soon become clear from opinion polls.

Earlier Thursday, before Obama spoke, Gallup’s tracking poll showed a significant uptick in his job approval rating in recent days.

The poll showed the rating had improved from a net negative of 3 percentage points (45 percent favorable, 48 percent unfavorable) to a net positive of 4 percentage points (49 percent favorable, 45 percent unfavorable) since Tuesday. At the same time, however, the same organization showed no real change in the head-to-head match-up between Obama and Romney.

“I think they’ve had a great convention,” said David Lanoue, a Columbus State University political science professor and an expert in political communication. “The question is: Who was watching? Romney got almost no bounce. If Obama gets a 3- to 6-point bounce, that would tell us what a difference conventions make.”

Obama’s closest aides have in recent days downplayed suggestions that he will break the race open. David Plouffe told ABC’s "Good Morning America" on Thursday that there was “very little elasticity in this election. I don’t think you should expect a big bounce.”

Attention will also turn almost immediately on Friday morning to the new employment numbers for August. A good number could add to the sense of momentum that the Democrats built up around their party’s presidential ticket this week. A bad one could stop it in its tracks.

For now, however, the president in one respect at least harkened back to the days of 2008 and one of two words that defined his first campaign: hope.

“If you share that faith with me, if you share that hope with me, I ask you tonight for your vote,” Obama said Thursday night, wrapping up his speech.

“I never said this journey would be easy, and I won't promise that now,” he added. “Yes, our path is harder, but it leads to a better place.”

— Bob Cusack and Justin Sink contributed to this report.