For Democrats, jubilant days of 2008 are distant memory

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The last time Democrats assembled for their national convention, the proceedings were awash in a mix of giddy exuberance and teary emotion as delegates nominated the party’s first African American presidential candidate.

Four years after the party in Denver, that jubilation has cooled.

As nearly 6,000 delegates gather in Charlotte, N.C., this week to back Barack Obama’s second bid for the White House, Democrats insisted their faith in him was not shaken. But a bittersweet nostalgia peeked through – memories of the wave of excitement that lifted their last national convention, an inevitable contrast to the hard-edged struggle Democrats confront this time.

“It was magical. It was absolutely magical,” recalled Lori Morris, a 50-year-old hair stylist from Lafayette, Ind., as she shared a drink with other delegates on a patio outside a Charlotte museum on Sunday evening.

“This week is going to be great,” she added quickly. “It cannot compare. It’s not the same. But the Democrats are fired up. The driving force – what’s going to give us energy – is we just watched the Republican convention. And they want to undo everything that we’ve worked for.”

Keith Grandberry remembers standing under an overcast sky in Denver cheering, crying and celebrating with thousands of others as Obama accepted the nomination in 2008. “It was electric,” he said. “Everybody was pumped up, full of hope and joy.”

That euphoria, he said, has largely dissipated.

“The atmosphere is different,” Grandberry, president of the Winston-Salem Urban League, said at a reception for delegates from the South. “Then, the atmosphere was full of optimism.”

Grandberry said that over the last four years, many Democratic voters have lowered their expectations of what the president can accomplish.

“There was so much pressure on one person to fix everything,” the 39-year-old said. “Now, the feeling is everyone has to get involved. I don’t think people are as enthusiastic as last time.”

Democratic officials insist that this year’s gathering will not pale in comparison to Obama’s first nomination. A few weeks ago, when the campaign gave away tickets for Obama’s Thursday night speech to volunteers, the lines stretched up to half a mile in some places, organizers said.

“The excitement and passion that folks have, not just for this convention, but for this president and for the causes he believes in and champions and the vision he has for the future, is palpable,” Steve Kerrigan, chief executive of the convention committee, told reporters Monday.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, chairman of the convention, also waved away the suggestion that enthusiasm has flagged.

“I’ve heard a lot of questions about that, and let me just say this: I don’t know who they’re talking to,” he said. “Talk to some of the volunteers here. There are kids, there are older folks like me, like us. They are here and they are excited.”

The atmosphere was certainly buoyant on Monday on Tryon Street, the site of a lively street festival that began the week’s events. The sweet smell of funnel cakes hung in the humid late summer air as people crowded around booths selling campaign merchandise. A local college marching band strutted down the middle of the street, blasting horns to the tune of “Celebration.” Many in the crowd displayed large “I Obamacare” buttons.

Amanda Kelley, a pathology lab supervisor from St. Charles, Mo., predicted that excitement would peak Thursday night when Obama delivered his acceptance speech in Bank of America Stadium, which can accommodate 65,000 people.

“I think it’s going build up to a crescendo,” said Kelley, 53. “And everybody is going to go, ‘Oh wow!’ “

She’s expecting Obama will bowl her over, the same way he did in Denver: “I’m probably going to be bawling like a baby.”

For now, however, the prevailing mood is more pugilistic than celebratory.

“The delegates are very determined to get the word out,” Kelley said. “They are disheartened that there are so many negative things out there. Because negativity is not what we signed up for.”

To be an Obama loyalist is to regularly confront criticism of his record, delegates said – underscoring the broader task facing his re-election campaign.

Stockton, Calif., delegate Nikki Linnerman said she gets frustrated whenever she hears the refrain, “Oh, Obama didn’t do it, didn’t fulfill his promises.” She counters that the president has been stymied at many turns by Republican leaders in Congress.

“It’s our job as delegates to educate people politically because there are a lot of misconceptions,” said Linnerman, who serves as secretary of her local Services Employees International Union district council. “Yes, he is doing what he can, but he’s also limited in what he can do. It’s really unfair to blame everything on one person.”

Gail Morse, a tax lawyer from Chicago, said that when she watched the speakers at last week’s GOP convention, she began yelling at the television in outrage.

“Personally, I don’t think the other side is selling anything,” said Morse, 55, after she and her partner posed with cardboard cutouts of the Obamas in an Uptown gift shop. “It’s all a bunch of lies.”

Morse said she feels “apprehensive, but quietly confident” about the election.

“I don’t want to get too exuberant, but in my heart of hearts, I think, how could anybody not vote for Barack Obama?” she said.

Still, beneath the festivities in Charlotte ran a persistent stream of anxiety about the threat posed by the Romney-Ryan ticket. And some supporters said they were all too aware of the ground Obama had lost since 2008.

“Any time the president attacks big business, I have a bad feeling in my stomach,” said Charlotte resident Bert Scott, 60, who works in finance, as he sipped wine at a delegate party Sunday night at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

That’s one reason Scott said he plans to donate more to the Obama campaign this year than he did in 2008.

“Last time, I was running on adrenaline,” he said. “This time, I’m running on fear.”

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