CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Democrats from Buffalo and across the nation gathered Monday in this leafy Southern banking town for a three-day national convention in which President Obama will proudly take ownership of the economy - even as Republicans pressed the case that he has failed to fix it.
Every speaker at the three-day gathering will echo the Obama theme of "building an economy from the middle out," rather than the "top down" approach of Republican nominee Mitt Romney, said Ben LaBolt, spokesman for the president's campaign.
"We're going to talk about how to create good-paying, sustainable jobs for the middle class," LaBolt said. "The Republican convention didn't address that question."
Unwilling to let the Democrats control the debate during their week in the spotlight, Republicans pushed back hard, reviving a Ronald Reagan line from 32 years ago: "Are you better off than four years ago?"
GOP vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan compared Obama to one-term Democratic President Jimmy Carter, who suffered through an economic downturn during his tenure and lost big to Reagan.
"Simply put, the Jimmy Carter days look like the good old days compared to where we are now," Ryan said in a campaign appearance in Greenville, N.C. "After another four years of this, who knows what it'll look like then?"
Obama supporters couldn't see things more differently. They've planned a convention that will stress Obama's rescue of the auto industry and the private-sector job growth, meager as it is, that has continued on a monthly basis since the end of the Great Recession in mid-2009.
The president made that very pitch at an appearance Monday at an auto plant in Toledo, Ohio, where he touted the auto bailout, which Romney opposed.
"I stood with American workers, I stood with American manufacturing, I believed in you," the president said. "I bet on you. I'll make that bet any day of the week, and because of that bet, three years later, that bet is paying off for America."
And at the convention, Obama is expected to say that his policies - which would include a tax increase on the wealthy - will result in a better, fairer economy in his second term.
"We're anticipating a path forward," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the convention chairman. "It's about laying a road map for what America needs to go forward for a long-standing economic recovery."
It's also about laying a road map for Obama's re-election.
North Carolina is one of the "swing states" that will decide what most experts expect to be a closely fought election, and top Democrats acknowledge that's why Charlotte was awarded the state's first major party convention in about 150 years.
The convention will spread the Obama message in an intense way here and in neighboring Virginia, which also looms large in the fall election, said Anthony Foxx, the Democratic mayor of Charlotte.
"This location makes sense for this president and the Democratic Party," Foxx said. "It's not an easy state for a Democrat to win, but he absolutely can win here."
Obama won North Carolina by 14,000 votes in 2008, and a Charlotte Observer/Elon University poll shows him 4 points behind Romney. The president is narrowly ahead in other swing-state polls, and this week he'll try to widen the margin.
"I really think this is an opportunity to energize the base, particularly in states such as New York that don't have that much [campaign] activity going on," said Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, a delegate from Buffalo.
Given that Obama is likely to win the heavily Democratic Empire State, Peoples-Stokes said it's important to energize local Democrats to work for the president in other swing states.
While some Buffalo Democrats are already traveling to Pittsburgh on weekends to help in the key swing state of Pennsylvania, People-Stokes acknowledged that Democrats arriving in Charlotte don't feel the same charge they felt when they first nominated Obama in Denver four years ago.
"So far the level of excitement is not as high," she said.
While that campaign four years ago was about "hope and change," the Obama campaign so far has primarily focused on drawing contrasts between the president and Romney. In ad after ad, Obama and his allies have stressed Romney's role at the Bain Capital private equity firm - and the job losses that sometimes resulted from his company's actions.
Some of the people who lost jobs at companies Bain purchased may speak at the convention, but Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz stressed that the message will not be all negative.
"The president has a record to run on," Poloncarz said. "Health care reform was a huge win in and of itself."
Expect a big pushback from Republicans as Obama and his supporters tout his record.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is camped out here, ready for a rapid response to Democratic convention developments. And while enjoying a vacation day at his summer home in New Hampshire, Romney released a statement saying: "For far too many Americans, today is another day of worrying when their next paycheck will come."
As Democrats begin the convention, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a rising Democratic star, will give tonight's keynote address. First lady Michelle Obama will follow him in the prime-time 10 p.m. hour when the television networks will cover the convention.
The party will formally renominate Obama and Vice President Biden on Wednesday, when former President Bill Clinton will be the headline speaker. The sessions today and Wednesday will be held in Time Warner Cable Arena, home of the National Basketball Association's Charlotte Bobcats.
But the scene will shift Thursday to 74,000-seat Bank of America Stadium, where Biden and Obama will deliver their acceptance speeches.
Obama aides said they expected to have no trouble filling the stadium with the president's supporters and were hopeful that the weather would hold out even though the forecast calls for a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms Thursday.
"This is going forward, rain or shine," said Steve Kerrigan, CEO of the convention committee.
Kerrigan acknowledged that the party has a backup plan in case the weather gets in the way of the outdoor extravaganza, which is to include performances by the Foo Fighters and James Taylor.
First-time conventiongoers seemed especially excited. Passers-by swooned when Jesse Jackson walked through town, and rumors filled the town about possible appearances by George Clooney and Brad Pitt.
For Shiana Eve of Buffalo, though, it was enough just meeting former NBA star Kevin Johnson, now the mayor of Sacramento, Calif.
"I am so excited," said Eve, an alternate delegate and granddaughter of former Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve. "Everyone is so fired up. It's awesome. And it's only Monday."

News wire services contributed to this report. email: