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posted: 9/7/2012 5:00 AM

Ambivalent in Charlotte

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Back in 2008 on Super Tuesday, Barack Obama boasted to a crowd of supporters: "We are the ones we've been waiting for." Four years later, thousands of Democrats descended on Charlotte in search of the president they voted for.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has always seemed as if he felt he had to go around proving that he's not soft. Not soft on terror suspects. Not soft on education reform. Not soft on immigration. Not soft on giving the order to kill Osama bin Laden.

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This might be good politics, but it's not good for your relationship with core supporters. They become angry, then ambivalent. What's a liberal to do when the person you voted for has taken up policies that you've railed against or been leery about? It's no wonder that the Democratic base -- union members in particular -- are less than enthusiastic about Obama's re-election.

Organized labor isn't spending the amount of money it has at previous Democratic conventions. Union officials claim the reason is that the Democratic Party chose to have the event in North Carolina -- a right-to-work state. But you can bet that at least some of the lukewarm response has to do with the perception among union rank-and-file that Obama has been less than attentive to their concerns.

Usually a politician will firm up his base and then, after a few years in office, reach for additional votes in the center. Obama lost many of his base voters because he reached for the center right away. And so the Obama re-election effort has come down to being nothing more than the anti-Romney campaign. The message: You don't have to like us, but you have to vote for us -- because the other guy is worse. The goal of the Obama-Biden campaign over the next two months is to try to drive up Mitt Romney's negatives without having the plan backfire and do the same to the president.

And remember, this isn't about gaining new ground with moderates and conservatives. Obama is just trying to get back to where he was by energizing his most liberal supporters. That's not good enough to win, but a campaign has to start somewhere.

Polls suggest this could be an uphill climb. The race is a dead heat, with Obama having trouble rallying Hispanics and young voters. A majority of both groups support the president, but the percentages are way down from what they were in 2008. That is the enthusiasm gap.

According to pollster James Zogby, Obama is getting 59 percent of the Hispanic vote, and Romney is getting just 26.4 percent. A large chunk -- 14.6 percent -- are not sure whom to support. Romney needs to get at least 35 percent of the Hispanic vote to be competitive. But Obama got 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008.

Although he could still improve his numbers by Election Day, why the drop-off in support? The answer now probably has something to do with the president's heavy-handed immigration enforcement policies and record-breaking number of deportations, both of which have

devastated the Latino immigrant community in the United States. Among young people, Obama gets 56.5 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds, Romney gets 34 percent and 9.5 percent are undecided. According to the Pew Research Center, Obama got 66 percent of the under-30 vote in 2008. Again, there's a drop-off. Most experts think the economy is putting a damper on youth enthusiasm for Obama. It's hard to feel good about a president, and an economy, when you can't find a job out of college.

The political conventions give both parties a chance to pretend to be something they're not. In Tampa, Republicans prominently displayed Latino and African-American speakers and got to pretend their party was more diverse than it really is. And this week, in Charlotte, many Democrats will swallow their disappointment and pretend that they're more excited about a second term than they really are.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

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