CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Michelle Obama made the case Tuesday for her husband’s reelection by contending that he was the same person who voters embraced four years ago — and by implicitly skewering his November opponent.
The first lady’s enthusiastically received remarks were designed to reintroduce her husband, in intimate terms, and to counter diminished enthusiasm for his reelection among members of his 2008 coalition.
“I have seen first-hand that being president doesn’t change who you are. No, it reveals who you are,” she said in closing the first day of the Democratic National Convention. “When people ask me whether being in the White House has changed my husband, I can honestly say that when it comes to his character, and his convictions, and his heart, Barack Obama is still the same man I fell in love with all those years ago.”
Her mission, like Ann Romney’s on the opening night of last week’s Republican convention, was to humanize a candidate who often comes across as aloof and remote from the lives of ordinary Americans. And she did it, like her GOP counterpart, with repeated invocations of “love” (15 times) and “heart.”
Mrs. Obama followed an electrifying speech by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the first Latino to keynote a Democratic National Convention. His national debut put the Harvard-educated Texan on the national map, recalling the way that Barack Obama’s keynote did in 2004, when he was still a state legislator.
With a mixture of soft laughter and gentle scorn, Castro described Romney, one of the wealthiest men ever nominated for president, as “a good guy. He just has no idea how good he’s had it.”
The “Republicans tell us that if the most prosperous among us do even better, that somehow the rest of us will too. Folks ... we’ve heard that before. First they called it ‘trickle-down.’ Then they called it ‘supply side.’ Now it’s ‘Romney/Ryan.’ Or is it ‘Ryan/Romney’?” Castro said.
“Either way, their theory’s been tested. It failed. Our economy failed. The middle class paid the price,” he said. “Mitt Romney just doesn’t get it. But Barack Obama gets it.”
To the delight of his partisan audience, Castro mocked Romney for switching positions on gay rights and abortion rights. “Gov. Romney has undergone an extreme makeover,” he said, laughing. “And it ain’t pretty.”
Earlier, the delegates viewed a video that made the same point in a dramatic way: footage of a 1994 campaign debate between Romney and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in that year’s Massachusetts Senate race. The Charlotte crowd roared at Kennedy’s riposte that, while he was “pro-choice,” Romney was “multiple choice.”
Foreign and defense issues, which got short shrift from speakers at the GOP gathering, were front and center in what amounted to a reversal of the usual party postures.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada praised Obama for approving the mission that killed Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden. Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said Republicans had put thousands of defense jobs at risk by refusing to agree to any tax increases and commended the president for ending the U.S. military involvement in Iraq and his drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, both of which Romney criticized.
In an emotional highlight, Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth brought the convention to its feet with a graphic description of the rocket-propelled grenade that struck the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting in 2004, exploding in her lap and costing her both legs and partial use of one arm.
“Last week, Mitt Romney had a chance to show his support for the brave men and women he is seeking to command. But he chose to criticize President Obama instead of even uttering the word Afghanistan. Barack Obama will never ignore our troops. He will fight for them,” said Duckworth, an Illinois congressional candidate, whose remarks prompted chants of “USA, USA!”
Speaker after speaker sounded notes of contrast with the recently concluded GOP gathering in Tampa, Fla. — by speaking in favor of gay rights, contraceptive services and Obama’s order allowing some young illegal immigrants to avoid deportation.
From the podium, there were testimonials to the benefits of the president’s healthcare overhaul and praise for his decision to bail out the auto industry, which Romney opposed, while attacking the Republican ticket’s plan to offer a voucher option to future Medicare recipients.
But it was Michelle Obama who subtly dug at Romney as she made a plea for a second-term chance for her husband.
“We got to keep working to fix this. We’ve got so much more to do,” she said, quoting her husband and prompting choruses of “Four more years!”
With a smile, she took aim at Romney’s wealth and his business ethics, frequent targets of Obama campaign attack ads, and charged that the Republicans took liberties with the facts in their convention attacks on Obama and his record.
“We learned,” she said, “that the truth matters, that you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules.”
She answered the GOP’s “you didn’t build that” theme — based on a comment by her husband about how businesses grew with the help of government — by couching his argument in personal terms. “We learned about gratitude and humility that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean,” she said.
And she also jabbed at Romney’s reputation for applying rigorous analysis to problem-solving, a hallmark of his term as Massachusetts governor and a key to the creation of his personal wealth.
“I’ve seen how the issues that come across a president’s desk are always the hard ones — the problems where no amount of data or numbers will get you to the right answer,” she said. “For Barack, success isn’t about how much money you make; it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”
The often disputatious Democrats are holding a three-day gathering notable for its lack of division — and almost complete absence of suspense. Speeches by Obama and former President Clinton are the marquee events, with Vice President Joe Biden relegated to a secondary role as a warm-up act for his boss Thursday.
On Wednesday night — more likely sometime early Thursday, local time — the convention will fulfill its most important piece of official business: the formal nomination of Obama for a second term, following a nominating speech by Clinton.
Obama watched his wife’s speech at the White House with his daughters, Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11. He is to arrive in the convention city Wednesday; Biden was in the hall Tuesday night, along with his wife, Jill, who mingled with delegates on the floor of Time Warner Cable Arena.
The convention is the first in the South for the Democrats since 1988, when Michael S. Dukakis was nominated in Atlanta, and the first ever in North Carolina.
In 2008, Obama became the first Democrat to carry the state since a Southerner, Jimmy Carter, did in 1976. But his margin of victory was just 14,000 votes, and recent public polling shows him narrowly trailing Romney in the state.
Like the Republican convention last week in Florida, the Democratic event was also captive to weather. The remnants of Hurricane Isaac, the tropical system that prompted the GOP to shorten its meeting by a day, have settled over the East Coast.
In addition to daily downpours, there is the threat of thunderstorms through much of the week, including Thursday night, when Obama is scheduled to deliver his acceptance speech at an outdoor stadium in downtown Charlotte.
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said the open-air show would go on “rain or shine” — as long as it doesn’t pose a safety hazard.
Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.