CHARLOTTE — The Democratic National Convention this week will attempt to walk a thin line between making bold statements tracking the evolution of the thinking of President Obama on controversial issues such as immigration and gay marriage while still trying to appeal to middle America.
"I think the platform is a reflection of the realities we face as people who believe in fairness and equal opportunity," said former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who was chairman of the platform-drafting committee.
"I do not believe we would be where we are today without presidential leadership on some of these issues," he said.
The convention will be officially called into session Tuesday. Democrats will set out to portray the President as having put America on the right course following the economic collapse that helped to elect him in 2008 while simultaneously branding newly crowned Republican nominee Mitt Romney as the wrong choice at the wrong time.
Part of that plan will be to address the parties' opposing platforms on hot-button issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and immigration.
So, did the party's evolution track Mr. Obama's or did he go where his party was already headed?
"He'll get credit for it in history either way," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He attended last week's Republican National Convention in Tampa and will be there in Charlotte for the Democratic counterpunch.
"Clearly he went somewhat reluctantly," he said. "The party led him there just like the Republican Party led Romney to positions he didn't have when he was governor."
The convention will take place in North Carolina, where more than 61 percent of voters in May approved a constitutional amendment declaring that "marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized."
The previously "red state" narrowly turned "blue" for Mr. Obama in 2008, and he's in a fight to hold onto it.
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Ohio overwhelmingly approved a similar amendment in 2004, but a petition effort is under way for a possible 2013 vote on a new amendment to reverse it.
For the first time, the Democratic Party's platform directly takes on marriage equality after carefully avoiding such words in prior platforms. In 2008, the platform simply spoke out for "full inclusion of all families, including same-sex couples" and against the Defense of Marriage Act signed by one of their own, President Clinton, in 1996.
After President Obama articulated the evolution of his own position after previously favoring traditional marriage, some groups called on Democrats to withdraw their convention from North Carolina. Now, more than 500 delegates who self-identify as gay are expected to be among the delegates when Mr. Obama accepts his party's nomination at Bank of America Stadium.
"The President was evolving with the societal changes appearing in culture," said Terry Penrod, a Columbus real estate agent and Toledo native who will be among Ohio's 15 gay delegates. "The younger generation clearly understands that marriage equality is important. That's really driving this change, the cultural shift."
Still, he does not expect the issue to be featured prominently in the convention that Americans will see in their living rooms.
"The Republicans want to use this as a divisive issue," he said. "They talk about the economy being the most important issue, but they stir up issues like this, abortion, the war on women."
The platform adopted last week at the Republican National Convention argues for the preservation of traditional marriage as "the union of one man and one woman," calling it the foundation of civil society and embracing laws governing it.
The plank adds: "We embrace the principle that all Americans should be treated with respect and dignity."
When he accepted his nomination Thursday, Mr. Romney set out to appeal to many of the core groups Democrats have courted. He spoke of the freedoms that immigrants expected when they arrived in America and of his own political reliance on women as Massachusetts governor and of the party's election of women to high office.
And he seemed to sum up in one sentence some of the other controversies of the party's platform before turning his focus back to the economy.
"As President, I will protect the sanctity of life," he said. "I will honor the institution of marriage, and I will guarantee America's first liberty — the freedom of religion."
Appeal to Hispanics
Both parties have displayed or will prominently display Hispanics in their conventions. Mr. Obama laid down the gauntlet this year when he embraced the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act and announced his administration would not deport children who were brought here illegally by their parents.
The party platform followed.
"I'm not sure that the words ‘DREAM Act' are in there, but certainly the spirit is there," Mr. Strickland said.
Baldemar Velasquez, an at-large delegate from Toledo and president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, said he's eager to see the final language. He said current law considers children to be guilty of their parents' crime of being here illegally and that anyone else would be given at least a chance under the U.S. judicial system to make themselves right with the law.
"Fine them," he said. "Give them a penalty. Get them reinstated in a correct way under the law. Isn't this why we elect a Congress and legislature, to modify the laws? This is the new reality."
The revised Republican platform calls for completion of double-layered fencing along the Mexican border and accuses the Obama Administration of undermining immigration law at every turn.
"It has lessened work-site enforcement — and even allows the illegal aliens it does uncover to walk down the street to the next employer — and challenged legitimate state efforts to keep communities safe, suing them for trying to enforce the law when the federal government refuses to do so," it reads. "It has created a back-door amnesty program unrecognized in law, granting worker authorization to illegal aliens, and shown little regard for the life-and-death situations facing the men and women of the border patrol."
Mr. Sabato noted there is a "great gulf" between the two platforms on this issue.
"I think it's helping the Democrats because you see with the Hispanic vote that Obama is holding on to at least as large a percentage as in 2008 — 67 percent," Mr. Sabato said.
"It's one of the few groups where he's doing better in his re-election race than in his first election."
The debate over platform language can be just as controversial over what isn't in there as what is. The abortion planks of both parties largely remain unchanged. But the Republicans' omission of an exception for victims of rape and incest in their anti-abortion plank became a firestorm because of the remarks of their candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri.
U.S. Rep. Todd Akin has since apologized for suggesting that a woman's body can shut down to prevent pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape."
"They didn't see Akin coming," Mr. Sabato said. "If they didn't have Akin, it wouldn't be as big an issue. There was no change, but no change meant endorsing what Akin had said in a way. It made it a much bigger issue."
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.