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Opening night convention spotlight on first lady

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In a tight race for the White House, President Barack Obama exhorted college students not to forget him despite difficult times as Democrats shone the spotlight on his wife at the opening of their national convention.

Republicans weren't alone in pointing out the economic troubles in an election year shadowed by a sluggish recovery and unemployment of 8.3 percent. "It's tough out there" for many Americans, conceded Elizabeth Warren, running for a Senate seat now in Republican hands in Massachusetts.

Obama, campaigning at Norfolk State University, said things will only get worse if Republican Mitt Romney wins the White House this fall, and told his college-age audience that Election Day apathy was his enemy — and theirs.

Republicans are "counting on you, maybe not to vote for Romney, but they're counting on you to feel discouraged," he said. "And they figure if you don't vote, then big oil will write our energy future, and insurance companies will write our health care plans, and politicians will dictate what a woman can or can't do when it comes to her own health."

"They're counting on you just to accept their version of things," he said.

On the final stop of a pre-convention campaign circuit of several battleground states, the president also dropped off a case of White House-brewed beer at a local fire station.

Hundreds of miles distant, in another swing state, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the party's chairwoman opened the three-day convention to the cheers of delegates.

Earlier, protesters briefly blocked an intersection a few blocks from the Democratic convention center, coming close enough to delegates to exchange slogans.

"Four more years," shouted Obama's supporters.

"No more years," came back the reply.

The Time Warner Cable Arena's conversion to the Democrats' made-for-television convention hall was complete. The lectern rested on a blue-carpeted stage, inside a circle of white stars suggestive of the presidential seal.

Opening night speakers included Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who claimed without any proof last month that Republican challenger Mitt Romney may not have paid income taxes for years despite his wealth.

Romney denied it, and Reid refused to say who had told him otherwise.

The Republican challenger was in Vermont as the Democratic convention began, preparing for three fall debates with Obama almost certain to be critical to the outcome of the election.

As was the case with Romney's convention last week in Tampa, Fla., several TV networks said they would carry only one hour of the Democrats' proceedings on live television. Obama's high command reserved the time for the convention keynote speaker, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro — and the first lady.

To laughter from his Virginia audience, Obama explained why he was ceding the opening-night spotlight to his wife.

"A political convention is "just like a relay, and you start off with the fastest person," he said.

"So I'm going to be at home and I'm going to be watching it with our girls. And I'm going to try not to let them see their daddy cry, because when Michelle starts talking I start getting all misty."

Mrs. Obama said before her speech she hoped to "remind people about the values that drive my husband to do what he has done and what he is going to do for the next four years. I am going to take folks back to the man he was before he was president."

There was no shortage of political calculation behind the program of the convention's first night — or for any other.

Polls show the first lady is more popular than her husband. With the economy struggling, Robert Gibbs, a campaign surrogate and former White House press secretary, said Mrs. Obama "can really tell the story of his (the president's) values, his upbringing, what he believes and what he wants to do yet for this country."

Democratic delegates bestow their nomination on Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday night, the same night that former President Bill Clinton delivers a prime-time speech aimed at voters disappointed with the results of the past four years yet undecided how to cast their ballots.

Clinton presided over eight years of economic growth as president, and his own opinion poll ratings have risen since he left the presidency 12 years ago, shadowed at the time by his impeachment in connection with a dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

White men favor Romney over Obama in public and private polls, but a Gallup survey taken in July showed the Clinton was viewed favorably by 63 percent of the same group, and unfavorably by only 32 percent.

Among white non-college graduates, another group where Obama struggles, Clinton drew 58 percent favorable ratings and 36 percent unfavorable in the same poll.

Obama's acceptance speech caps the convention on Thursday night at the 74,000-seat Bank of America football stadium. Aides kept a wary eye on the weather in a city that has been hit in recent days with strong afternoon rains.

Republicans did their best to rain on Obama's convention, whatever the weather.

Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan spoke in Westlake, Ohio, standing behind a lectern bearing a sign that read "Are you better off?"

It was one more jab at Obama's economic record, and at the Democrats' inability to answer the question directly in a round of television interviews on Sunday.

They have since settled on an answer — Yes.

But Republicans didn't stop with the sign on their stage.

They released a web video that interspersed images of Obama and the economy's weak performance with slightly out-of-focus video clips of former President Jimmy Carter discussing the nation's economic woes when sat in the Oval Office more than 30 years ago.

Officials said Republicans were stockpiling cash for the fall campaign. Romney raised more than $100 million for the third month in a row in August, officials said.

Many delegates said emphatically they were better off than when Obama took office, but not all cited pocketbook issues.

""I'm 100 percent better off than I was four years ago because as a young person and as an LGBT American, Obama has done wonders for our community. He's kept student loan rates down, repealed 'don't ask, don't tell' and embraced marriage equality. These are all important things," said Aaron Wilder, a delegate from Oklahoma City.

Matthew Daly reported from Norfolk, Va. Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Ohio, Kasie Hunt in Vermont, Jack Gillum in Washington, Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, and Ken Thomas and Matt Michaels in Charlotte contributed.