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Castro defends Obama’s economic record in keynote

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Rising Democratic star Julian Castro defended President Obama's economic record in his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night.

Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, Texas, combined two of the Democrats' biggest priorities in his speech: defending one of the president's major electoral weaknesses and courting one of the election's most important voting blocs: Hispanics.

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In his remarks, Castro argued that federal spending leads to a thriving middle class.

“We all understand that freedom isn't free,” he said. “What [Mitt] Romney and [Paul] Ryan don't understand is that neither is opportunity. We have to invest in it.”

In that argument lies what is perhaps the largest policy difference between the two campaigns in the upcoming election. Republicans argue that high taxes and excessive spending are stifling growth among job creators and damaging investor confidence, while Democrats say increasing taxes on the wealthy is justified to foster upward mobility among the lower and middle classes.

“It's a choice between a nation that slashes funding for our schools and guts Pell grants, or a nation that invests more in education,” Castro said. “It's a choice between a politician who rewards companies that ship American jobs overseas or a leader who brings jobs back home.”

In addition to introducing a party favorite to voters, Democrats hoped to get a boost among one of their key voting blocs, as Castro was the first Hispanic to deliver a keynote address.

Hispanic voters went strongly for Obama in 2008, and while he holds a massive lead over Romney among Hispanics nationally, recent polling shows that support has softened. The president will need a strong turnout in 2012 to secure a second term in what will be a tightly contested race.

Castro’s star power seemed to match that of the Republicans’ Hispanic superstar, Cuban Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). The near-capacity audience was engaged throughout, took to their feet on numerous occasions and drowned out his final words with a standing ovation. Several Latino delegates were seen with tears in their eyes.

And like Rubio in his introductory speech for Romney at last week’s Republican National Convention, Castro nodded to Spanish-speaking Americans by dropping lines in his native tongue on two occasions.

It was another way for the 37-year-old mayor of the nation’s seventh-largest city to weave his personal narrative into his speech.

Democrats have high hopes for the telegenic young mayor, and Castro used the coveted speaking slot — which launched Barack Obama, then a little-known state senator from Illinois, into the national spotlight eight years ago — to talk about his working-class upbringing.

Castro recounted the story of his grandmother, Victoria, who was orphaned as a child, only graduated the fourth grade, and raised Castro’s mother, Rosie, as a single mother working as a maid, cook and babysitter.

Rosie Castro is also a single mother and longtime community activist who fought to end the city’s Anglos-only political dominance.

“My mother fought hard for civil rights so that instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone,” he said.

She was in the crowd Tuesday night, and the audience stood chanting, “Rosie” when she appeared on the screen behind Castro as he spoke.

Castro is not the only member of his family harboring political aspirations. He has a twin brother, Joaquin, who is one minute younger, and a heavy favorite to become a congressman next year.

Joaquin Castro introduced his brother, and the Texas delegation went wild for the twins and many delegates held up signs in Spanish. "Castro Proud," read one. "CastrObama," read another.

“My grandmother didn't live to see us begin our lives in public service,” Castro said. “But she probably would've thought it extraordinary that just two generations after she arrived in San Antonio, one grandson would be the mayor and the other would be on his way — the good people of San Antonio willing — to the United States Congress.”

In his speech, Castro sought to directly link the economic plans of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to those that led up to the 2008 financial meltdown, and tried to paint the Republican nominee as an out-of-touch aristocrat.

“Mitt Romney, quite simply, doesn't get it,” he said. “A few months ago he visited a university in Ohio and gave the students there a little entrepreneurial advice. 'Start a business,' he said. But how? 'Borrow money, if you have to, from your parents,' he told them. Gee, why didn't I think of that? Some people are lucky enough to borrow money from their parents, but that shouldn’t determine whether you can pursue your dreams. I don’t think Gov. Romney meant any harm. I think he’s a good guy. He just has no idea how good he’s had it.”

Castro also reminded Americans of the Republican vice presidential candidate’s controversial budget, saying he’s not sure if it’s the Romney-Ryan ticket or the Ryan-Romney ticket.

“The Romney-Ryan budget doesn’t just cut public education, cut Medicare, cut transportation and cut job training,” he said. “It doesn’t just pummel the middle class — it dismantles it.”

— Russell Berman and Bernie Becker contributed.

— This story was updated at 10:30 p.m.