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A new ballgame for Obama: Playing defense

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Post-partisan • Emerging from between faux-Greek columns, Obama hammered Bush but also urged a football stadium full of people in Denver and millions watching at home to look past the standard partisan divides, promising to reinvent Washington politics.

"What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose — our sense of higher purpose. And that’s what we have to restore," he said, before pre-emptively brushing off critics who were certain to discredit his motives. "That’s to be expected. Because if you don’t have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters. If you don’t have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from. You make a big election about small things."

At a glance

The Democratic lineup

The list of key speeches during the three-day convention.

Tuesday » First lady Michelle Obama and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, keynote speaker

Wednesday » Former President Bill Clinton and Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren

Thursday » President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden

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Fast-forward four years and Republicans are now alleging Obama is trying to turn this election into a debate about small things to distract from his record, arguing that the debate about the release of Romney’s tax returns and attack ads claiming the GOP nominee is out of touch with regular Americans are attempts to divert attention from anemic economic growth, high unemployment and a rising national debt.

"His campaign is not about the future, it is trying to define Mitt Romney as a bad choice for voters come this November because the changes the president promised never came true," said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who has worked for congressional leaders. "The vision he presented to the country hasn’t worked, so the only thing left is to attack and destroy your opponent and hope that voters will keep the devil they know in office, rather than the devil they don’t."

Former Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, said Obama faces a convention road loaded with land mines. A full assault on Romney will only feed voter cynicism and may turn off people. Soaring rhetoric may seem like a repeat of years past. And he won’t be able to easily say the country is on the right track.

"He’s on the defensive," Bennett said. "The shine is off."

Fighting back • But Utah delegates say Obama should use his convention speech Thursday to fight back against Republican claims and to contrast his vision with that of Romney. At the same time, they don’t want him to shy away from his accomplishments during a trying time for the nation.

"We were confronted and handed the worst economy in 50 years," said Hatch, the Democratic committeeman from Utah. "We stopped the erosion. We did a lot of good things, and we are slowly building a foundation for an incredible future."

Delegates tout Obama’s health care law as a major step forward and the bailout of the auto companies as a move that saved an industry and thousands of jobs. They note the passage of a law making it easier for women to sue for pay discrimination and the elimination of the military policy requiring gay service members to keep their sexuality a secret or face expulsion.

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"What I expect is a recommitment to the unfinished work. There are a lot of issues that we still need to put our best minds to," said Karen McCoy, a delegate from Salt Lake City and a retired Veterans Affairs employee, who pointed to the pressing concerns of immigration, health care and the nation’s financial well-being.

McCoy says Obama has struggled "with the harsh political realities of the Beltway" but that his vision for the government is one that trumps Romney’s. She believed in the vision Obama shared in his first convention address in 2004. Unlike the Republican Party’s goal of limiting the size, scope and power of government, she sees federal institutions as a way to help the needy and less fortunate.

She can recall a line that Obama used in 2004, repeated in 2008 and one he may well say again on Thursday: "It is that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — that makes this country work."

mcanham@sltrib.comTwitter: @mattcanham

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