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First Thoughts: Checking all the boxes

The first night of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., struck a different tone than RNC in Tampa with first lady Michelle Obama delivering an impassioned plea to women and disillusioned Democrats that her husband is still the same man he was four years ago. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

The Democrats’ first night checked all the boxes… It also replayed the greatest hits on Romney… And it told the Dems’ narrative on the American Dream… Breaking down Michelle Obama’s and Julian Castro’s speeches… Previewing tonight’s Bill Clinton speech… Republicans counter the Clinton speech… And Paul Ryan (in Iowa) and Ann Romney (in Ohio) hit the campaign trail.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If you’re a Democrat believing the recipe for the president’s re-election is coalition politics, you couldn’t have scripted the opening night of the Democratic convention here any better. You had your nods to Latinos, young voters, and women -- precisely the groups the Obama campaign wants to turn out in November. There was the message (epitomized by Julian Castro’s keynote) that the election is a choice between two very economic visions. There also was the message (relayed by Martin O’Malley) that the choice is “forward” vs. “backward.” You had plenty of red meat and tough critiques of Mitt Romney (see Ted Strickland). But the evening also was capped off by a personal speech by First Lady Michelle Obama, designed to re-inspire the disillusioned faithful and defend her husband’s record and character. Yet perhaps more than anything else, last night conveyed real passion that we mostly didn’t see in Tampa. Don’t get us wrong, Republicans were fired up last week. But their passion was directed more at the president than Mitt Romney. Last night, however, the Democrats’ passion was focused squarely on their candidate. Elections aren’t decided by conventions, but the Democrats know how to produce a compelling -- and on-message -- night of TV. In short, on Day 1, Democrats proved they are better at producing a convention.

*** Replaying the greatest hits on Romney: Here’s another broad observation about last night: Every speech -- with the exception of Michelle Obama’s -- was equal part an affirmation of Obama and a takedown of Romney. And sometimes, those takedowns were raw and tough. An example was Tammy Duckworth, who touted the president’s national security record but who also pointed out that Romney never mentioned the word “Afghanistan” once in his acceptance speech last week. While the 10:00 pm ET hour in primetime was soft (with the Michelle Obama and Julian Castro speeches), the rest of the evening -- taken as a whole -- was a pounding of Romney. And it was the greatest hits, some of which Republicans will claim were below the belt:  Swiss bank account, tax returns, pioneers in outsourcing, references to Bain layoffs. Even the video tribute to Ted Kennedy was an uppercut to Romney, which led to RNC Chair Reince Priebus to express his disgust for using Kennedy from the grave in an attack. 

*** Two different versions of the American Dream: Also last night, almost every speech tried to capture the American Dream. The same was true in Tampa, but the message there was focused on an American Dream to become an entrepreneur or businessman. Here was Romney’s acceptance speech: “Business and growing jobs is about taking risk, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, but always striving. It is about dreams. Usually, it doesn't work out exactly as you might have imagined. Steve Jobs was fired at Apple. He came back and changed the world.” But compare that with the version of the American Dream we heard last night, which was focused more on giving the next generation a better chance. “Barack and I were both raised by families who didn’t have much in the way of money or material possessions but who had given us something far more valuable -- their unconditional love, their unflinching sacrifice, and the chance to go places they had never imagined for themselves.” This was a pure “values” play.

*** Breaking down Michelle Obama’s speech: As for the first lady’s speech, she tried to accomplish three things. First, she implicitly contrasted the Obamas’ beginnings with the Romneys’. “Even though back then Barack was a senator and a presidential candidate, to me he was still the guy who’d picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger side door.” Second, she made a direct appeal to women. “[President Obama] believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care. That’s what my husband stands for.”  And third, she vouched for her husband’s character. “So when people ask me whether being in the White House has changed my husband, I can honestly say that when it comes to his character, and his convictions, and his heart, Barack Obama is still the same man I fell in love with all those years ago.” As NBC’s Carrie Dann points out, the first’s lady task last night was to have the American public fall back in love with him, too. What the Obama campaign did last night was what the Romney camp probably wishes it did its first night: put your show-stopper last in the primetime.

*** A tale of two keynote addresses: Meanwhile, Julian Castro’s keynote was quite the national debut for the San Antonio mayor. His speech was an appeal to Latinos and younger voters, and he had a great story to tell. But the most striking thing about Castro’s keynote address was that he was essentially telling Obama’s message -- about the American Dream and the vision for the economy. Contrast that with last week’s GOP keynote speech by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was delivering the Christie message, not necessarily the Romney message. It seems pretty clear to us the Obama campaign had a heavy hand in Castro’s remarks. Who thinks the Romney folks had much of an impact on Christie’s?

*** Talking about abortion rights: In retrospect, perhaps the most surprising part of last night was that it had more talk about abortion rights than in any Democratic convention since 1992, the first of many self-described “Year of the Woman” campaign years. Not only did the first lady talk about the importance of women “making our own choices about our bodies and our health care,” NARAL President Nancy Keenan gave a fiery speech about abortion rights. Four years ago, it seemed the Democratic Party was going out of its way to feature pro-life officeholders, like Tim Kaine or Bob Casey Jr., as a way to set a different tone on culture. Fast forward four years later and it’s clear Democrats and the Obama campaign were sending the not-so-subtle message that they believe the secret formula to capitalizing on the gender gap: talk about women’s rights and women’s choices. But that strategy also carries the potential risk of alienating Democratic voters who might oppose abortion rights. This strategy may work in the Nevadas, Colorados and Virginias but in the heavier Catholic states, like Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio?

*** Bob Casey’s response: Speaking of, one of us interviewed Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey Jr. last night and asked him if he was comfortable with what he was hearing on the abortion issue. Casey: “Well, we have differences of opinion on that but I think what most people are focused on, not just tonight, but throughout the campaign, is the basic fundamental difference about the future of the country.” Translation: Casey didn’t want to get into a debate on abortion -- that much was clear. More Casey on “The Daily Rundown.”

*** Dem platform gets criticized: If the production and scripting of last night’s Democratic convention went without a hitch, the same wasn’t true of the Democratic platform. Republicans and the Romney campaign, the Los Angeles Times reports, seized on the fact that Democrats dropped the language from 2008 recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  In addition, CBN’s David Brody pointed out that Democrats dropped the words “God-given” from the platform. If there was another criticism of yesterday, it’s that the evening’s tone – outside the 10:00 pm hour – was pretty liberal leaning.

When Bill Clinton places President Barack Obama's name in nomination Wednesday, he'll be up against the Cowboys and Giants, who face off in the NFL season opener. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports on Clinton's big night.

*** Tonight’s headliners -- Clinton and Warren: The marquee speakers for the second night of the Democratic convention are Massachusetts Senate nominee Elizabeth Warren and former President Bill Clinton. A top Obama campaign official tells First Read about Clinton’s speech tonight, “You’ve seen his speech; it’s the TV ad” the campaign has been airing over the past couple of weeks.  If there’s a worry for the Democrats tonight, it’s that more folks -- precisely the ones the Obama camp wants Bill Clinton to speak to -- are watching tonight’s NFL football game. By the way, NBC’s Brian Williams will be interviewing Clinton for NBC’s “Nightly News” tonight.

*** Countering Clinton: Meanwhile, the Romney campaign and its surrogates are trying to make the case that Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton. John Sununu writes in New Hampshire Union Leader, “[W]hile President Obama and his allies would love to be able to borrow credibility from the nation’s 42nd President, the contrast between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — particularly when it comes to economic and fiscal issues — couldn’t be greater.” The Wall Street Journal adds, “Arguably the most memorable phrase (not related to a scandal) that Bill Clinton uttered during his Presidency came in his 1996 State of the Union address: "The era of big government is over." And for a few years, it was over. By contrast, Mr. Obama's four years have been spent expanding the government willy-nilly.” By the way, it’s pretty striking to see Republicans praising a man who raised taxes (without any GOP votes) and whom they impeached.

David Goldman / AP

Democrats gather in Charlotte, N.C., to officially nominate President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden as the party's candidates for the 2012 presidential election.

*** Wednesday’s convention schedule: Here are some of tonight’s major speakers:  

7:00 pm hour: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan
8:00 pm hour: Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, Reps. Steny Hoyer and Barney Frank, and Govs. John Hickenlooper and Jack Markell.
9:00 pm: California AG Kamala Harris, Sandra Fluke, former employees of Bain Capital enterprises, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen.
10:00 pm: Elizabeth Warren, Antonio Villaraigosa, and Bill Clinton
After Clinton’s speech, Democrats will begin their roll-call votes to nominate Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

*** On the trail today: Paul Ryan holds a rally in Adel, IA at 10:20 am ET… And Ann Romney campaigns in Findlay, OH.

*** Romney’s debate prep: Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is down doing debate prep. Some nuggets from NBC’s Garrett Haake: Romney and Rob Portman (playing the part of Obama) had an hour-long mock debate yesterday, with Romney adviser Peter Flaherty playing the part of moderator Jim Lehrer. And the Romney campaign has given their candidate so many briefing books, they’re enough to fill a suitcase.

Countdown to 1st presidential debate: 28 days
Countdown to VP debate: 36 days
Countdown to 2nd presidential debate: 41 days
Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 47 days
Countdown to Election Day: 62 days

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