CHARLOTTE, N.C. — President Barack Obama thrilled Democrats inside the Time Warner Cable Arena on Thursday night, but the real star to emerge after two weeks of national party conventions is Bill Clinton.
Obama and Mitt Romney have spent more than a year engaged in small ball, often petty politicking. Clinton took the stage in Charlotte on Wednesday and for 48 extraordinary minutes schooled both of them on how to lay out a clear vision, how to treat voters with respect and substance, and how to frame the choices in this election. The 42nd president, who has long had a rocky relationship with Obama, did a better job selling Obama's record and vision than Obama has in four years.
"That's the takeaway for a lot of folks — that it took Bill Clinton to come in and explain the last four years and to answer the question that even the president's own people couldn't answer over the weekend: Are you better off than you were four years ago,'' said Michael Steele, the former Republican National Committee chairman.
If both sides follow Clinton's example, the next nine weeks could finally give voters details and clarity about what differentiates Obama and Romney, rather than bogus accusations that Romney likes to fire people or that Obama rolled back welfare reform.
Clinton played the folksy professor, spewing facts, figures and concrete ideas. Romney last week and Obama Thursday night offered up definitive goals but no explanations for how they intend to achieve them. Obama's surprisingly predictable speech sounded more like a conventional stump speech than a nationally broadcast closing argument for a second term.
Conventions mark a critical point in a presidential campaign, but they only take us so far — and probably less far this cycle than prior ones.
Both sides have already spent hundreds of millions on TV ads, rather than wait until the end of summer to press down on the gas as in the past. That's helped harden the polarized electorate and makes the prospect of a significant convention "bounce" less likely than usual.
The RealClearPolitics average of national polls as the convention closed Thursday? An exact tie between Romney and Obama.
That makes the debates — Oct 3 in Denver, Oct. 16 in New York and Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton — the most critical events left in this race. A serious stumble by either candidate could decide the election.
The number of undecided voters is barely 6 percent in most polls, and for months both campaigns have been consumed with maximizing their base vote, and trying to turn off and drive down turnout for assorted demographic groups favoring their opponent, instead of making a case to those not yet decided.
That's what made Clinton's speech stand out.
"He fired up the base with a speech that was so clearly designed for independents," Democratic consultant Mo Elleithee said. "He kept those people in the arena on the edge of their seats wanting more — with a speech that was so much about bipartisan cooperation and reaching across the aisle."
Certainly no one could have predicted a Democratic convention cheering the mention of George W. Bush, as Clinton saluted him for AIDS relief, and other Republican presidents for their accomplishments.
For those of us exhausted souls concluding two conventions, a few more observations:
• Democrats in Charlotte were far more energized than Republicans last week at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. It probably has no bearing on whether Virginia or Florida or Nevada swings to Obama or Romney, but the difference was striking nonetheless. Apparently when a party is fully united behind a nominee, a convention hall becomes electric. When a party is more enthusiastic about beating the incumbent than their nominee, a convention hall can be listless.
• Sorry Tampa, but Charlotte had a much better vibe. Maybe it was Tampa's vastly bigger security perimeter and police officers dressed like soldiers or Charlotte's more vibrant downtown, but attending the Democratic convention felt like you were part of Charlotte. More street vendors, more mingling with locals, easily accessible restaurants and bars.
Tampa, Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "looked like the aftermath of a dirty bomb, when everyone had fled."
• Conventions can still surprise. Yes, they're thoroughly scripted and choreographed, but they still can produce extraordinary moments, good and bad. People will recount Clint Eastwood's kooky chat in Tampa with invisible Barack Obama for years. Same with Clinton continually blowing off the TelePrompTer to add his own riffs. His prepared text was about 3,200 words, while the delivered speech came in at more than 5,800.
Likewise, when Republicans voted to change party rules, boos erupted on the floor of the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Chaos ensued on the floor in Charlotte when Democrats tried to add items that had been stripped from their platform — a reference to God (as in people's "God-given potential") and a declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
Conventions should probably be condensed, but they still can veer off script and they remain valuable. The best lesson of the 2012 conventions came from Clinton: Don't underestimate voters.
We'll see over the next 60 days whether Romney and Obama learned it.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@Tampabay.com.