Democrats gear up for opening night in Charlotte

By Alexander BurnsFor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. The Obama campaign will begin laying out its case for reelection in prime time Tuesday night, as Michelle Obama and an array of prominent party leaders kick off the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

The first lady will deliver the climactic speech of the evening, sharing the 10 p.m. hour with San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the up-and-coming Texas Democrat who will be the first Latino to give a convention keynote speech. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, is also slated to speak briefly at the top of the hour.

The president hyped his wife's remarks at a campaign rally in Norfolk, Va., earlier in the day, telling supporters: "Whatever I say here today is going to be at best a distant second to the speech you will hear tonight from the star of the Obama family, Michelle Obama."

Convention-goers must press through several hours of intraparty business, however, before the major speakers take the stage. Democrats will sign off on their party platform and approve the rules for this week's proceedings. No controversy is expected.

And before Castro and Michelle Obama speak, the party will trot out a list of its top 2012 candidates and future prospects for their turns in the spotlight. Congressional candidates Tammy Duckworth and Joe Kennedy III will speak, as will Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx.

In prepared remarks shared with the press, Foxx described the convention's host city as a model of racial progress in the Upper South a once solidly conservative region that now boasts two presidential swing states, North Carolina and Virginia.

"Nearly half a century ago, when cities throughout the South struggled to desegregate schools, Charlotteans came together. Around kitchen tables, black and white families met and decided together to break down the barriers that had so long divided their children," Foxx will say in his speech. "I was one of those children. I learned what it truly meant to be judged by the content of one's character."

Foxx, who is viewed as a likely candidate for statewide office down the line, tied the character of Charlotte to the message of the Obama campaign: "I have seen President Obama at work and these are his values, too. This is a man who pulled our economy back from the brink. This is a president who plans to give every child an opportunity to succeed."

The precise message and tone of the Democratic gathering remains to be seen, but Obama aides have suggested in recent days that it could be a departure from the relentlessly negative, Mitt Romney-bashing approach that has dominated much of the summer.

In a weekend CBS appearance, Obama adviser Stephanie Cutter said speakers in Charlotte would be "talking to all Americans, not just rallying our base like we saw last week."

Were Democrats to deliver sharper-edged attacks at any point in the convention, it is unlikely that Michelle Obama would be their chosen messenger.

Still, even the first few hours of events will feature at least some measure of negative attacks on Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.

Labor leader Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, intends to slam Republicans for pursuing "Romney economics," according to remarks shared early with the media.

"Time after time, working families have paid the price for Mitt Romney's success. Those are his values. And make no mistake: Those are the values he'd bring to the White House," Henry will say. "Middle-class Americans cannot afford four years of 'Romney Economics.' We need a president who fights for us. And that's what we have in President Barack Obama."

The opening day of the Charlotte convention has gone off so far without any of the large-scale logistical challenges that plagued Republicans last week in Tampa. There has been some anxiety over one practical point: whether the on-and-off rain this week in Charlotte could put a damper on planned speeches Thursday outdoors at Bank of America Stadium by President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

But the official word is those speeches are moving ahead rain or shine, and there are two days of other convention events to move through, anyway.

After the Castro and Michelle Obama speeches Tuesday, Wednesday's headliners will be former President Bill Clinton and Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. The Obama campaign confirmed that Thursday's stadium gathering will also feature an address by former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, the ex-Republican who has endorsed Obama, before the president and Biden speak.

Alexander Burns is a reporter for POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.