CHARLOTTE - President Obama and his Republican opponents have fought to a draw for nearly four years over the best way to fix the economy. On Wednesday, Obama turned to the Democratic Party's explainer-in-chief to win the argument: Bill Clinton.
The former president did what he does best. He made the case for a Democratic-style economic revival based on investments in individuals and innovation. He stood up for the man who defeated his wife four years ago and stated the case against Mitt Romney better than anyone else has been able to do. For 48 minutes, he delivered a stunning tour de force that had delegates on their feet.
"In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president's re-election was pretty simple: 'We left him a total mess, he hasn't finished cleaning it up yet, so fire him and put us back in,' " Clinton said in nominating Obama for a second term. "I like the argument for President Obama's re-election a lot better."
That Democrats turned to Clinton - whose troubled presidency nevertheless produced a flourishing economy and four years of budget surpluses - reflects their inability to make the case that Americans are better off than they were four years ago. In recent days, top Democrats have stumbled awkwardly over that question.
Clinton, perhaps better than anyone else in the party, knows how to make that case - particularly in a venue that he has mastered as a convention speaker in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and now 2012.
"He takes over the room," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. "Clinton's ... masterful at making the contrast."
Clinton certainly took over the room at precisely 10:34 p.m., to the same Fleetwood Mac song that was the theme of his 1992 campaign: Don't Stop.
"I want to nominate a man who's cool on the outside, but who burns for America on the inside," he said. When he was finished, Obama came out to embrace him.
Clinton's speech was akin to a point-by-point rebuttal of the entire Republican convention in Tampa last week. It was vintage Clinton the educator, explaining to an adoring audience where their party can brag about progress and the other side cannot.
To win the four-years-ago argument, Clinton contrasted Obama's administration and the one it followed under George W. Bush- and asked which one Americans want in 2012.
"The most important question is, what kind of country do you want to live in?" Clinton said. "If you want a you're-on-your-own, winner-take-all society, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared prosperity and shared responsibility - a we're-all-in-this-together society - you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden."
Economic 'building blocks'
In an interview on NBC before the speech, Clinton said his task was to make Americans understand that the economy is on the upswing - even if they can't feel it yet. The message is simple: Be patient. "That's the whole election, really," Clinton said. "People have to decide whether something they can't feel is still the right direction for the country because of things that have been done."
So the former president delivered a full-throated, occasionally humorous and extemporaneous defense of Obama's record, from the 2009 economic stimulus to financial regulation, health care and student loan overhauls. He called them "the building blocks of a new American prosperity."
The endorsement of his Democratic successor came in contrast to 2008, when Clinton was a reluctant supporter of the young senator who blocked his wife Hillary's path to the White House. Over the past four years, the two men haven't bonded personally so much, but they have seen eye-to-eye on policy.
Clinton lauded Obama for seeking compromise and conciliation while Republicans have sought to block him at every turn. "One of the main reasons we should re-elect President Obama is that he is still committed to constructive cooperation," Clinton said. As evidence, he noted Obama picked Joe Biden as his running mate despite Biden's own campaign for president in 2008 - and picked another presidential contender for secretary of State.
"Heck," Clinton said, "he even appointed Hillary."
He peppered his prepared address with off-the-cuff remarks such as "Y'all better listen carefully to this, this is really important" - then responded point by point to attacks from Mitt Romney's campaign.
Clinton was eager to attack the Republican ticket - not on a personal level, but based on economic and fiscal policies he believes are ill-fated. Some of his toughest language came on issues he said were "personal to me," including GOP claims that Obama wants to dismantle the welfare overhaul Clinton signed in 1996 and his policies are responsible for a national debt that just topped $16 trillion.
"Remember, Republican economic policies quadrupled the debt before I took office and doubled it after I left," he said. "We simply cannot afford to give the reins of government to someone who will double down on trickle-down."
Democrats were eager for someone to make the case of Clinton-Obama vs. Bush-Romney. The Time Warner Cable Arena was packed, forcing fire marshals to close the doors.
"It's no accident that Democrats celebrate our past presidents," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., "while Republicans virtually banish theirs."
In some ways, Obama has been Clinton's equal or more. While the then-president tried and failed to overhaul the nation's health care system, Obama succeeded. And while Clinton pushed through a deficit-reduction package in 1993 that helped lead to balanced budgets years later, Obama pushed through an economic stimulus package that many economists say helped prevent another Great Depression.
The task now will be for Obama not to pale by comparison tonight.
"Obama is an outstanding orator," says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. "He can hold up to Clinton."