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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Forget the conventions. Friday was the most important campaign day in the last two weeks.
That's because the government released another tepid jobs report. The economy gained 96,000 jobs in August, far fewer than expected. The unemployment rate dropped from 8.3 percent to 8.1 percent, but only because more people gave up looking for work.
In the wake of that news, the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte - a week of soaring speeches and gleeful Republican-bashing that left Democrats as hopeful as they've been all year - didn't seem as important as it did hours earlier.
Suddenly the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, was on the attack, and the incumbent Democrat, President Obama, found himself playing defense.
All of which points to the main takeaway from the Democratic gathering in Charlotte:
Conventions matter only so much.
By any measure, the Democrats had a successful convention. While Obama's address seemed understated, delegates and pundits alike loved Michelle Obama's speech. And even the bit players at the convention delivered remarks that left the audience rapt and raving.
But now the economy threatens to crush whatever "bounce" Democrats might have gotten out of their gathering.
Of course parties want to have successful conventions. Done right, they're three- (or four-) day infomercials that can give a campaign a boost, even if it's only temporary.
And done badly, conventions can leave parties divided and demoralized, as anyone who remembers the Democrats' 1968 street-fight fiasco in Chicago will tell you.
Still, Friday's job numbers serve as a reminder that conventions are just chapters in the long narrative of a campaign. And often they are not the pivotal chapter.
Among other key takeaways:
The Democrats have learned to lacerate with a smile.
From Julian Castro, the charismatic young mayor of San Antonio, to the funny uncle, Vice President Biden, the Democrats criticized Republican nominee Mitt Romney with verve and gusto.
But unlike the GOP a week earlier, they kept the vitriol to a minimum. Instead they let humor do their dirty work.
"First they called it 'trickle-down'," Castro said of the GOP's economic philosophy. "Then 'supply-side.' Now it's 'Romney-Ryan.' Or is it 'Ryan-Romney?'?" he added, with a sly smile.
Two nights later, Biden said: "I found it fascinating last week when Gov. Romney said that as president, he'd take a jobs tour. Well, with all his support for outsourcing, it's going to have to be a foreign trip."
The Democratic crowd loved such barbs. What's more, with their humor, the Dems projected confidence in tough times in a way that contrasted sharply with the GOP's eat-your-vegetables approach of a week before.
Ironically, the Democrats' use of quips as weapons reminded some longtime political pros of a Republican hero: Ronald Reagan, whose good humor and optimism helped him win two presidential landslides.
The parties have switched personalities.
Back in the day when there were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, Democratic conventions were often models of chaos.
From Chicago in 1968 to George McGovern's 2:30 a.m. nomination speech in 1972 to the battle between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy in 1980, Democratic conventions were messy, contentious and, well, often less than successful.
Back in those days, GOP conventions were just the opposite: orderly, disciplined and absolutely on message. With the exception of Pat Buchanan's infamous culture war speech of 1992, it's hard to think of a Republican convention that veered sharply off script.
But what a difference 2012 makes.
The program at this year's Democratic gathering featured speaker after speaker who, in differing ways, built toward the same theme: stay the course through tough times with a president who understands you (unlike that other guy).
Given the quality of the speeches and the unity of purpose, it's no wonder that the Democrats in the hall hung on every word and cheered themselves hoarse.
Not so the GOP gathering in Tampa a week earlier.
There it was every man for himself. Sen. Rand Paul delivered a Libertarian screed. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's "Song of Himself" didn't mention Romney till near the end. And vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's speech was a fact-checker's fever dream, leaving him wiggling his way out of his whoppers ever since.
By no means did it all add up to a unified theme. All the GOP convention proved was that the Republicans are now as disparate and distracted as the Democrats once were.
No more conventions in midsized burghs.
Charlotte made the most of what it has with a convention that turned the city's "Uptown" area into a weeklong party.
Still, it was a hard week on the delegates, just because Charlotte doesn't have enough hotel rooms to accommodate 35,000 guests.
As a result, New York delegates were scattered among three hotels. Delegates from some states were stuck in Rock Hill, S.C., 27 miles away. And other convention guests went home in the wee hours to a Rodeway Inn in the darkness on the edge of town.
That meant an hour bus commute to the convention hall - but that was nothing compared with Tampa, a sprawling, hurricane-prone, waterlogged metropolis where New York delegates were among many who suffered through 2-hour late-night bus rides.
For the delegates, many of them older, it was hell.
In fact, the long commutes and resulting short nights may help explain why the GOP convention crowd seemed so listless compared with the Democrats.
Of course, the parties chose their convention cities because they are in "swing states." But in doing so, they threatened to disappoint or even alienate the volunteer armies who go to the conventions and who will be key to turning out the vote this fall.
There's a lesson here for both parties. Big cities are equipped to handle big events and smaller cities are not. The parties proceeded to Tampa and Charlotte at their own peril.
In the battle of aging actors, Bill Clinton won.
The former president's 48-minute dissection of the Republican agenda proved to be far easier to take than Clint Eastwood's 12-minute chit-chat with an empty chair six days earlier.
At the age of 66, Clinton proved once again that no one can explain policy - while eviscerating the opposition - quite like Bubba.
His convention speech was a tour de force, at turns cutting and kind, witty and wonkish.
And as he has often done, Clinton crystallized the Democratic argument into a simple, stark choice: "If you want a winner-take-all, you're-on-your-own society, you should support the Republican ticket," he said. "But if you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibility, a we're-all-in-this-together society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden."
So there you have it: the key line of the night, from the best speech at the convention.
Will it matter in the end?
Well, that may well depend on the jobs numbers that will be released next month, and the month after that.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com.