CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — In a Labor Day warm-up to the Democratic National Convention, President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney and their top allies engaged in a cross-country tussle over whether Americans are better off than they were four years ago.
It was a debate that burst open overnight after top Democratic allies offered muddled answers to the same question over the weekend.
Romney said in a statement: "For far too many Americans, today is another day of worrying when their next paycheck will come."
His running mate, Paul Ryan, chimed in from a rally in Greenville, N.C.: "Simply put, the Jimmy Carter days look like the good old days compared to where we are now."
"After another four years of this, who knows what it'll look like then," Ryan wondered.
Obama tailored his better-off pitch toward an agreeable audience of autoworkers in Toledo, Ohio, arguing that because of his administration's bailout "the American auto industry has come roaring back."
"I stood with American workers, I stood with American manufacturing, I believed in you," he bellowed. "I bet on you. I'll make that bet any day of the week and because of that bet, three years later, that bet is paying off for America."
Vice President Joe Biden seconded the broader better-off message at a Labor Day rally in Detroit and put the blame for the country's economic woes squarely on the Republicans, declaring "America is better off today than they left us when they left."
Then he struck up a familiar chant: "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."
Republicans, though, were happy to mock Obama's supporters for giving equivocal answers to the better-off question in a series of weekend interviews.
Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus called Monday's happier talk from the Democrats "a total reversal of their position of yesterday. This must mean that 23 million Americans have found jobs, incomes have gone up, gas prices are going down, poverty is in decline and the deficit has been cut, all in the last 24 hours."
Obama's aides and allies went into overdrive to put a glossy sheen on economic progress over the past four years and on the question of whether Americans are doing better under Obama.
"Absolutely," said Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager, on NBC's "Today" show. "By any measure the country has moved forward over the last four years. It might not be as fast as some people would've hoped. The president agrees with that."
Martin O'Malley, Maryland's Democratic governor, had answered the same question with a "no" on Sunday before turning the blame to Obama's Republican predecessor. But appearing Monday on CNN, O'Malley tried a more positive turn of phrase, saying: "We are clearly better off as a country because we're now creating jobs rather than losing them. But we have not recovered all that we lost in the Bush recession. That's why we need to continue to move forward" under Obama.
As they open their national convention, Democrats have plenty of convincing to do.
In the most recent Associated Press-GfK poll, 28 percent said they were better off than four years ago, while 36 percent said they were worse off and 36 percent said they were in about the same financial position.
His convention over and done, Romney spent Labor Day enjoying some downtime with his wife, Ann, at their lakeside estate in New Hampshire. Romney took a midmorning boat ride, pulling up to the Goodhue & Hawkins Navy Yard in Wolfeboro to gas up his 29-foot Sea Ray and pick up a Sea Doo jet ski that had been in for repairs.
Ann Romney drove the jet ski back toward their home across the lake, while Romney stayed in the boat.
The GOP nominee planned to lay low for a few days, preparing for the October debates as Democratic conventioneers gathered for the opening of their event Tuesday.
Delegates were gathering across Charlotte on Monday for state breakfasts and a festival in downtown Charlotte featuring singer James Taylor and actor Jeff Bridges.
At a breakfast with the Iowa delegation, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the chair of the convention, told about 60 members of the state's contingent that Romney and running mate Paul Ryan would pursue massive tax cuts that would benefit only the very wealthy — stances that he said were far removed from their GOP predecessors.
"Ronald Reagan would turn in his grave listening to some of these people," he said. "They're so far out there."
Villaraigosa told the Iowans that he spent 25 years as a community organizer and urged them to register new voters and recruit volunteers to help re-elect Obama.
"We've got our work cut out for us. We know that," he said. "The country is evenly divided. It has been for a long time. So what are we going to do? This is going to be a working convention. Every one of you can sign up as a volunteer. In fact, I know you're already going to volunteer."
The campaign had one immediate need in the turnout department: filling up a 74,000-seat outdoor stadium for Obama's prime-time speech on Thursday night. With 6,000 delegates at the convention and thousands more attached to the event, Democrats were hoping to pack the event.
Obama deputy campaign manager Jennifer O'Malley-Dillon told Iowa delegates the campaign was hoping the rain would stay away when the president delivers his speech.
"If you believe in weather gods, you should pray to them," she said.
San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro delivers the keynote speech on Tuesday, followed by first lady Michelle Obama's remarks. Obama and Biden will be nominated for second terms on Wednesday night, when former President Bill Clinton takes the stage as star speaker.
Keeping a strong focus on the economy, a new Obama campaign ad running in six closely contested states — Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia — claims Romney's policies would "hit the middle class harder" and that he doesn't see the "heavy load" the middle class is carrying.
Obama aides said they expected Romney and Republicans to outpace the president and his party in fundraising in August because Obama spent less time raising cash than in the month before, and because the GOP held its convention — usually a big money draw — in August.
Woodward reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Philip Elliott in Detroit, Kasie Hunt in Wolfeboro, N.H., and Steve Peoples, Michael Biesecker, Mitch Weiss, Beth Fouhy and Julie Pace in North Carolina contributed to this report.