CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Tens of thousands of Democrats descend on Charlotte for their party's national convention Tuesday, two months before an election that will determine the direction of a divided nation.The Democratic National Convention offers a chance for the party to try to recapture the enthusiasm it had during 2008's historic race and to explain why Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American president, should be given a second term in the White House even as the economy continues to falter.
Millions remain out of work, with unemployment surpassing 8 percent consistently since shortly after Obama took office. Trillion-dollar-a-year deficits have sent the national debt soaring. And while polls show Americans personally like the president, more think Republican Mitt Romney has a better plan to fix the economy.
"The fire has gone out compared to four years ago," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.
This week, Democrats will attempt to contrast the visions of Obama and Romney, not only on fiscal matters but on a variety of other issues that explore the role of government.
The festive three-day event opens Tuesday at Time Warner Cable Arena. The convention's 5,556 delegates will formally nominate Obama and Joe Biden as president and vice president. Both will speak Thursday at Bank of America Stadium.
Democrats will hear from former President Bill Clinton, a top Obama surrogate who is expected to deliver a forceful prime-time speech on economic recovery.
A number of high-profile women such as Caroline Kennedy and actress Eva Longoria will help drive the party's pitch for a big turnout from female voters and help punctuate the Democratic attack on Republicans for what they call a "war on women." San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro will serve as the keynote speaker, an acknowledgement of the power of the Latino voice in the race and the nation.
Delegates also will hear personal stories from everyday educators, entrepreneurs and veterans.
While Republicans were criticized for not talking more about Romney at their convention last week in Tampa, Fla., Democrats hope each speaker will return to Obama and his vision for the future. "Unlike at the Republican convention, we want to offer a real contrast," said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic political consultant who worked on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the convention a "huge platform with an enormous megaphone."
"It's an opportunity to reach many people that you may not reach on a daily basis, either because they don't happen to live in a swing state, or maybe they're not watching the evening news," she said.
With an expected television audience of tens of millions, the convention is a chance to reach not only the activists in the room but a broader base that has grown less enthusiastic over the last four years.
A CNN poll released last week showed Obama with a hefty lead over Romney among registered voters - 52 percent to 43 percent - but among likely voters the numbers narrow considerably - 49 percent to 47 percent.
Gallup recently reported that only 39 percent of Democrats are "more enthusiastic than usual" about the election, compared with 61 percent in 2008 and 68 percent in 2004. It found that 51 percent of Republicans were "more enthusiastic than usual."
Obama remains popular with many key groups - including African Americans, Hispanics and young voters - but they are less enthusiastic than before and may not go to the polls. Of particular concern are young voters. Mindful of that, Obama embarked on a three-state swing last week to college towns in Iowa, Colorado and Virginia.
Rod Smith, chairman of the Democratic Party in Florida, one of the largest battlegrounds, said that to reach the small window of undecided voters in the Sunshine State the party needs to stress preserving the quality of life for senior citizens and solutions to cope with the nation's growing immigrant population.
Though Democrats will have to speak about the administration's mixed record of the last four years, many do not want to dwell on it.
"He should fire people up by looking forward, not looking backward," Drew Lieberman, a Democratic political consultant, said of Obama.
Democrats hope to contrast the two parties' policies on social issues, such as abortion rights, the environment, and most importantly, the plight of the lower and middle classes.
"It should be more about going forward," Kohut said. "Lots of people think we haven't made a lot of progress, and you can't convince them."
But independent pollster John Zogby said Obama and Democrats have done a poor job of touting their record and should take time at the convention to do so. For example, he said, they need to better explain that federal stimulus money was spent on important projects, and the benefits of the health care law.
"He has a story to tell and he needs to tell it," he said.
Charlotte was chosen over Cleveland, Minneapolis and St. Louis, a party bow to the importance of North Carolina to the general election. Obama narrowly carried the state in 2008, the first Democrat to win there since Jimmy Carter in 1976, in what Democrats hope was the start of an enduring push into the South and not a one-tine anomaly.
It's the first nominating convention of a major party held in the battleground state.
The convention will only last three days, shortened to accommodate Labor Day Monday. Republicans met for the same amount of time last week after the threat of Hurricane Isaac led them to cancel the first day.
Several Democrats, including senators and House members in tough re-election campaigns, are choosing not to travel to North Carolina, mindful of the president's sagging approval ratings.
Nominating conventions, an American tradition for nearly two centuries, have long abandoned the suspense. Instead, they are scripted events designed to hone in on a message.
"Conventions are sort of an artifact of another political time, they don't chose candidates anymore, there's not a lot of drama, but it is a platform from which to launch the fall campaign and really lay out your vision and contrast it with the one the other party and the other candidate is offering, and that's what will happen," Obama senior strategist David Axelrod said.
Lesley Clark in Washington contributed.