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Democrats aim to energize core groups with first night of convention speeches

If the Republican National Convention was all about presenting presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's softer side, the Democratic National Convention hopes to shore up key parts of President Barack Obama's voting coalition. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.


Updated 7:55 p.m. - CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Democrats set about showcasing their own diversity on the opening evening of their convention Tuesday in Charlotte, a week after Republicans put their rising women and Latino stars on display in Tampa.

First lady Michelle Obama will lead a gathering of voices meant to energize some of President Barack Obama's and the Democratic Party’s core voters and stymie Republican efforts to make inroads with those communities.

Slideshow: Democratic National Convention

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro will deliver the keynote address as a prime-time counterpoint to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s speech to the Republican National Convention last week. And other slots will go to speakers meant to motivate young voters, women, and African-Americans to turn out to the polls in November.

Rep. Xavier Becerra talks about the role of Latino voters as well as the enthusiasm gap heading into the DNC.

The Obama campaign downplays the idea of an enthusiasm gap between its supporters and those of Republican nominee Mitt Romney. They also dismiss the notion of waning excitement from their own key constituencies now vs. four years ago. “No, hell no,” a top Obama campaign official said of the notion in previewing the night’s speeches. Polls, though, suggest that one of the enduring challenges for the president will be in making sure core Democratic groups turn out to the polls this fall.

 Related: First Thoughts: The enthusiasm gap

Obama leads Romney by 10 points among women and by 35 points among Latinos, according to last August’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the challenge for Democrats involves making sure those voters turn out to the polls.

That challenge is particularly evident in North Carolina, the home to this week’s convention and where Obama won by only 14,000 votes in 2008; a victory due in large part to high turnout from young voters and African Americans.

Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images

An advance team checks the stage hours before the start of the Democratic National Convention (DNC), September 4, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The president has staked much of his re-election effort on making the 2012 race into a "choice," rather than a referendum on his first term.  He often admonishes audiences: “Don't boo – vote!”

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But as Republicans push a time-tested attack on incumbents (“Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”) this week, tonight’s speakers will try to reverse any sense of disillusionment or disappointment.

To that end, the GOP trotted out a series of high-profile figures, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and would-be first lady Ann Romney, to make the case against Obama, with an eye toward women and Latinos.

Many of Democrats’ speakers tonight are arranged to make the counterpoint to Republicans’ messaging last week.

NBC's Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro are in Charlotte, North Carolina for the Democratic National Convention.  They preview tonight's speeches by First Lady Michelle Obama and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.


Michelle Obama, who enjoys stellar personal favorability ratings and has become a valuable campaign surrogate for her husband, will cap tonight’s speakers. The first lady’s remarks present a strong opportunity to speak directly to women and African-Americans.

"I am going to be at home and I'm going to be watching it with our girls and I am going to try not to let them see their daddy cry," President Obama said Tuesday in Virginia of his plans for tonight's speech. "Because when Michelle starts talking, I, I start getting all misty."

Michelle Obama, like Vice President Joe Biden later this week, will serve more as a “character witness” to the president than anything else.

Some of the Democrats’ other speakers this week will more directly challenge Romney on issues of importance to specific voting blocs.

Recommended: Some big-name Democrats will be skipping Charlotte

Kal Penn, the actor-turned-White House staffer who was featured in a promotional video for the convention released on Monday, will speak tonight in a play for young voters.

The overtures to women this evening will be even sharper. Lilly Ledbetter, the namesake figure behind a paycheck equality law Obama signed early in his term, will address delegates shortly before prime time tonight. Other women onstage tonight will include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman. Viewers early in the evening can also expect a tribute to the women of the House of Representatives.

For the first time, Democrats have included formal support for same-sex marriage rights in its party platform – a plank that's expected to be formally adopted. Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign discusses.

Tuesday evening will also feature members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and other high-profile Latino leaders like Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, among others.

One of the most anticipated speeches will be the keynote from Castro, a figure regarded by Democrats as a rising star in the party who has drawn comparisons with Obama. A top Obama campaign official called Castro the “embodiment of the American dream,” and the campaign expects tonight’s speech to be a highlight of the night.

A number of African-American speakers – from highest-ranking African-American in the House, Rep. James Clyburn, S.C., to a rising Democratic star, California Attorney General Kamala Harris – will speak tonight.

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High turnout among black voters in 2008, who were particularly energized to elect the nation’s first black president, helped put Obama over the top in states like Virginia and North Carolina and could help put the president over the top versus Romney in 2012.