Rain, political risks force Obama's speech indoors

September 5, 2012 - 10:04 PM
Obama 2012

President Barack Obama waves to supporters as he arrives at the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — President Barack Obama's decision Wednesday to scrap plans to accept his Democratic nomination before a massive crowd outdoors was as much about trying to mitigate political risk in a key battleground state as it was about public safety.

His party blamed severe weather forecasts in announcing that Obama would host the final night of his convention indoors instead of at a 74,000-seat football stadium. But Democrats also worried Obama's leadership would be questioned and he would anger voters in the closely contested state if changed venues at the last minute or held a rain-soaked event.

Republicans dismissed the Democrats explanation, arguing that Obama didn't have enough support to fill Bank of America Stadium in a state that he's struggling to win.

Obama squeaked out a victory in North Carolina in 2008, but polls show him trailing Republican rival Mitt Romney two months from Election Day.

The weather call means the president now will address a far smaller crowd indoors in the same hall where Democrats have gathered for the first two days of their convention. The Time Warner Cable Arena will be set up for about 15,000 people — mostly official convention participants — when Obama speaks.

That's just slightly larger than the president's biggest crowd this election cycle, though an audience of millions will be watching on television. Vice President Joe Biden will also speak Thursday at the indoor arena.

Republicans, who canceled the first day of their convention due to weather in Tampa, Fla., accused Democrats of downgrading their events because of low enthusiasm.

"You can't believe a thing this administration says," said former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a Romney backer. "Their campaign promised you rain or shine the president would be speaking there. Then when they couldn't get a crowd, they brought it inside. I think those facts speak for themselves."

Democratic officials had said earlier this week that Obama would speak outside if it were raining, but not in the event of severe weather. The National Weather Service said there is a 40 percent chance of thunderstorms on Thursday afternoon, dropping to 20 percent by the time the president was scheduled to speak in the 10 p.m. hour.

It has rained every day since Saturday in Charlotte. Strong storms brought downpours of nearly an inch Monday and Tuesday.

Obama's team feared the threat of storms could cause some people to stay home, leaving the president speaking to a half-empty stadium. They worried that a last-minute move inside would leave tens of thousands of people in downtown Charlotte with nowhere to go. They also fretted about the possibility of anti-Obama hecklers acquiring some of the free tickets to the event and disrupting the president's speech.

Obama aides insisted the president would have filled the outdoor stadium if they had proceeded with that plan. Campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said more than 65,000 people had signed up for credentials to attend the outdoor speech and that 19,000 more were on a waiting list.

The consolation prize for those who planned to be at the stadium: a Thursday afternoon conference call with the president.

"We will work with the campaign to ensure that those unable to attend tomorrow's event will be invited to see the president between now and Election Day," said Steve Kerrigan, the convention CEO.

Obama's campaign had planned to use the larger public rally to help boost voter registration and recruit new volunteers. Those efforts will be hampered by the move indoors, but the campaign still has voter information from the 65,000 people who signed up for credentials.

In 2008, Obama accepted the Democratic nomination before a capacity crowd of 84,000 people at an outdoor stadium in Denver. His campaign turned the event into a massive voter registration and recruitment drive that they credit with helping Obama carry Colorado.

Delegates gave the move indoors mixed reviews.

Louisiana delegate Charles Kincade said he was disappointed by the decision.

"I know there are a lot of people who had their hearts set on seeing Obama," he said.

Jan Bauer, a delegate from Ames, Iowa, said she was thrilled about the move 'because it's not very comfortable sitting in the rain."

The venue switch is sure to be a costly letdown, if the 2008 Democratic convention is any guide.

Charlotte convention organizers have been guarded about their expenses and won't have to publicly report them until October. Federal campaign records from the Democratic convention in Denver show that the host committee spent more than $760,000 just to rent the outdoor stadium, not counting all the costs of outfitting it for Obama's acceptance speech.

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Associated Press writers Ken Thomas and Jeffrey Collins in Charlotte, N.C., and Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn., contributed to this report.