11:52 AM CDT, September 5, 2012
Charlotte, North Carolina
-Democrats easily beat expectations after GOP predictions lowered their bar
-Tribute to late Ted Kennedy makes pointed attack on Romney's convictions
-71-year-old Ted Strickland energizes the opening night crowd
-Democrats look as if they believe they have a winner in auto bailout
Here are five things we learned:
1. Expectations? Beaten
Remember when the Democratic National Convention was supposed to be a disaster of untold proportions?
That's the story Republicans have been telling for months. Convention organizers were struggling to raise money. Democrats are disillusioned with Obama. The North Carolina Democratic Party is in shambles.
The GOP succeeded in lowering the bar so much that the only thing Democrats had to do Tuesday was look into the camera without drooling.
Instead, speaker after speaker invigorated the Charlotte crowd with searing attacks against Mitt Romney and a robust call to arms for President Barack Obama.
Then, as the night concluded, a beaming Michelle Obama spoke eloquently about her husband and reminded both the convention audience and viewers at home why she has an approval rating in the mid-60s.
"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," she said to cheers.
Her testimonial about her husband's devotion to faith, family and hard work -- and her recollection of their shared humble beginnings -- was the indisputable highlight of the night for Democrats eager to draw a human contrast with Romney, the stiff and buttoned-up Republican nominee.
2. Ted Kennedy still a powerful Democratic voice The late Ted Kennedy, who died in 2010 from brain cancer, still has a voice in 2012, particularly in the campaign against Mitt Romney.
Nephew Joe Kennedy, who is running for Congress in Massachusetts, introduced a video tribute to the late "liberal lion," and linked his uncle to Obama.
"Four years ago, Uncle Teddy marveled at the grit and grace of a young senator who embodied the change our country sorely needed," Kennedy said. "As we pause today to remember Senator Ted Kennedy, we recommit ourselves to the leader he entrusted to carry on our cause."
Following highlights of the senator's work for veterans' rights, raising the minimum wage, health care and his fight to protect Social Security and Medicare, the video pivots to footage from a debate in his 1994 Senate race against Mitt Romney.
"I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country. I believe that since Roe V. Wade has been the law for 20 years, we should sustain and support it. And I sustain and support that law, and the right of a woman to make that choice," Romney said at the debate.
Romney has since changed positions and now opposes abortion rights, a switch that Republican primary opponents used to call him a flip-flopper on that and other issues and that Obama's campaign has similarly used.
Responding to Romney's answer at the time, Kennedy hit back with an argument still made to this day by Romney's critics, accusing the Republican of pandering for votes.
"I have supported Roe V. Wade. I am pro-choice," Kennedy said. "My opponent is multiple choice."
The video also included a clip of Kennedy railing against his then-opponent for aligning himself too close to Democratic views: "Now he's for minimum wage. Now he's for education reform. If we give him two more weeks, he may even vote for me, because those are things that I am for."
During the 2012 primaries, Romney was constantly on defense in his effort to prove his conservative chops. Resurfacing a Kennedy quote like that could remind viewers of those same qualms the base has about Romney's conservative credentials.
"I thought that video was one of the most effective pieces of political communication I've seen in a long, long time. That was eviscerating, bringing back the debate like that in this hall," CNN contributor and Republican strategist Alex Castellanos said.
3. Strickland resurrected
Back in 2010, in the waning days of his unsuccessful bid to be re-elected governor of Ohio, a fired up Ted Strickland downed a 5-Hour Energy on the campaign trail -- an unusual move for a soft-spoken former minister from a town called Duck Run.
It looked like Strickland might have tossed back another energy drink before taking the stage on Tuesday: The man who was passed over for the job of Democratic National Committee Chairman in 2011 showed the White House why that decision might have been a mistake.
Strickland embraced the role of partisan brawler, riling up the convention audience with barbed, populist-themed attacks against Romney.
He accused Romney of straight-up "lying" about Obama's record on welfare. He said Romney is obsessed with "Bermuda shell corporations" where he can hide his investments without paying taxes in the United States. And he said that if Mitt was Santa Claus, "he'd fire the elves and liquidate the inventory."
"Mitt Romney has so little economic patriotism that even his money needs a passport," Strickland boomed. "It summers on the beaches of the Cayman Islands, and winters on the slopes of the Swiss Alps."
Tough talk? Yes. But it blew the roof off the arena in Charlotte -- just what the Democrats needed on the opening night of the convention.
And it wasn't just the convention crowd that loved it. Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago exploded in cheers after Strickland finished his speech, a source in the office told CNN.
Not bad for a 71-year-old.
4. Will auto bailout drive Dems to victory?
Obama's bailout of the General Motors and Chrysler was given prominent placement in prime time on the first night of the convention. It's a strategy that the Obama campaign thinks could be the difference in the crucial battleground states of Ohio and Michigan, major bases for the auto industry.
Strickland spent most of his speech in the 9 p.m. Eastern hour preaching about the auto bailouts, using personal examples.
"Ina Sidney is a grandmother who lost her ability to provide for her family when they closed down the auto plant in Perrysburg, Ohio. Ina says thanks to Barack Obama for having the courage to back an industry that others had given up on. She's an autoworker and a breadwinner once again," shared Strickland.
The bailout was started under President George W. Bush in 2008, but the next year Obama grabbed the keys to the program, managing and funding the bailouts of GM and Chrysler, pushing them both into bankruptcy.
"The auto industry supports one of every eight jobs in Ohio, and it's alive and growing in America again," said Strickland.
He attacked the GOP presidential nominee over his opposition to the bailouts, saying "Mitt Romney proudly wrote an op-ed entitled, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." You know, if he had had his way, devastation would have cascaded from Michigan to Ohio and across the nation."
Romney opposed the government bailout and pushed for a privately financed, managed bankruptcy of the two automakers.
Two speakers later, more praise from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff during Obama's first two years in office.
"I remember when the president received a report that the auto industry had a few weeks before collapse. We met in the Roosevelt Room late into the night. Some of the president's advisers said that in order to save General Motors, you had to let Chrysler go under. Others said it was throwing good money after bad," said Emanuel. "Only the president suggested going all-in to save the industry. Rising above all the voices in Washington, President Obama listened to the voices that mattered to him most-the voices of the auto workers."
And Emanuel followed Strickland in attacking the GOP challenger, saying "where Mitt Romney was willing to turn his back on Akron, Dayton and Toledo, Ohio, the president said, 'I've got your back'."
In the 10 p.m. Eastern hour, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley also touted the auto bailouts and Michelle Obama also praised her husband's role, saying he "fought to get the auto industry back on its feet."
A Gallup poll from February indicated that a slight majority of Americans disapproved of the auto bailouts, but the first night of the Democratic convention made it pretty obvious that the Obama campaign thinks touting them will motor them to victory in Ohio, where 18 electoral votes are up for grabs, and also in neighboring Michigan, another competitive state (with 16 electoral votes) that happens to be home to the American auto industry.
"Let me give you two reasons the auto bailout was issue Number 1 on opening night -- no, three reasons: Michigan, Ohio and unions," CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley said.
5. Democrats not ceding any ground on women's vote
While polls repeatedly show Obama has a strong lead over Romney among women, Democrats indicated Tuesday night they're not taking that margin for granted. Speakers routinely reminded viewers that their party was the one siding with women -- a narrative Democrats have been pushing all year in their effort to frame the GOP as anti-women.
"For the Democratic women of the House, our work is not about the next election but rather the next generation," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said on stage, flanked by several congresswomen.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York added: "When President Obama made health care a right, not a privilege for all Americans, that was a change that brought hope to millions. Now women are getting the preventative services that they deserve, including birth control."
When women were asked in a recent CNN/ORC International poll which candidate "cares more about the needs of people like you," 58% of women chose Obama, while 36% chose Romney.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act also came up numerous times throughout the night, hailed not only as a groundbreaking law for equal pay but also as Obama's first piece of legislation he signed into law.
Ledbetter herself delivered a rousing testimony, saying the president came to her defense after she lost her battle when the Supreme Court threw out her case against Goodyear and Rubber Co. in 1997.
"But with President Obama on our side, even though I lost before the Supreme Court, we won," she said. "I think it says something about his priorities that the first bill he put his name on has my name on it too."
The night capped off with the highly-anticipated speech from first lady Michelle Obama, who pointed frequently to her husband's love for their two daughters and made sure viewers knew that he was a proponent for women's issues.
"He believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care, that's what my husband stands for," she said.
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