By Richard Wolf, and David Jackson
CHARLOTTE (USA TODAY) - 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: make the case for a Democratic-style economic revival based on investments in students and workers, technology and innovation. He stood up for the man who defeated his wife four years ago and stated the case against Mitt Romney better than virtually anyone else.
"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 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.
To win the four-years-ago argument, Clinton contrasted Obama's administration and the one it followed under George W. Bush- and then he 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 he would not dwell on his successes. Rather, he 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 I'm going to explain and support the stimulus bill, the financial regulation bill, the student loan reform bill, the health care bill, and try to say why these are the building blocks of a new American prosperity."
That full-throated defense of Obama's record and vision comes 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.
During the past four years, the two men haven't bonded personally so much, but they have seen eye-to-eye on policy.
As a result, Clinton was eager to attack the Republican ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan- not on a personal level, but based on economic and fiscal policies he believes are ill-fated.
"I respect how hard they both work and how smart they are, and I do believe that as they presented themselves at the convention, that they are good family people and they believe in what they say," he said. "But I disagree with them. I think that this rather dramatic turn to the right and turn against the whole idea of compromise that the Republican Party has made - it is a mistake."
Democrats appeared 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 temporarily.
"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 second night of the convention, in fact, was a tribute to policy initiatives Obama has achieved: rescuing the auto industry, protecting young immigrants from deportation, expanding domestic energy, keeping student loans affordable, helping veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
The crowd was far more attentive than during the first two days of the Republican convention, and the speeches were cheered loudly.
"I'm actually more enthusiastic about it than I was four years ago, when I said I thought he was ready to be president, because I've seen him dig in the dirt and fight for change. I've seen him make things happen. I've seen him criticized, demonized, knocked down," Clinton said on NBC.
"He's had a very tough hand to play. I think he's made a good job of a bad situation. People don't feel it yet, but they're going to benefit from it if they stay with him."
The task now will be for Obama not to pale by comparison tonight. Based on his performance at the 2004 Democratic convention and the speeches he has delivered since, most observers expect him to do just fine.
"Obama is an outstanding orator," says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. "He can hold up to Clinton."