Decision to move Obama's speech inside sparks scramble

Obama's 2008 convention speech was held at an outdoor football stadium. Obama's 2008 convention speech was held at an outdoor football stadium. Ron Edmonds/AP file photo
The game was called on account of thunderstorms. Or at least a 30-to-40 percent chance of them.

The decision to relocate President Obama’s acceptance speech tonight from Bank of America Stadium to the Time Warner Cable Arena left thousands of would-be attendees frustrated and hunting for other venues to watch what was expected to be a triumphant sequel to Obama’s outdoor address in Denver four years ago.

Convention officials and Obama aides rejected suggestions, gleefully pushed by Republicans, that fears of disappointing attendance had prompted a political calculation to move to the guaranteed-capacity indoor arena. The weather, organizers said, left them no choice but to cancel. One senior official said the Obama campaign had an overflow list of 19,000 who could not be seated in the stadium.

“Our goal from the very beginning was, how to make this the most open and accessible convention in history, and we decided as late as operationally possible,” Democratic National Convention Committee CEO Steve Kerrigan told Convention Daily, describing the decision as “heartbreaking.”

Instead, delegates and donors will be allowed inside, while the people expected to fill at least 50,000 of the stadium seats that were set aside for those carrying “community credentials,” including supporters from four surrounding states, have been encouraged to join a Thursday pre-speech conference call with Obama and to host watch parties in their homes.

“We spent thousands of dollars to come down here, and we can’t go. That’s really unfair,” said Gwendolyn Clarke, who said she had driven from New York City with her daughter to watch the stadium speech, hoping to defray the cost by selling water bottles outside the arena. “When you give money and time and don’t get in, that’s not fair. If you’re not famous enough, you don’t get in.”

Republicans were quick to impugn Obama’s motives.

“You can’t believe a thing this administration says,” said John Sununu, the former governor of New Hampshire and a top Romney surrogate, during a Charlotte press conference. “They promised you, rain or shine, the president would be speaking there. And then when they couldn’t get a crowd, they brought him inside.”

Aside from the obvious optical disadvantages and too-easy metaphors—Obama forced to downsize four arduous years after making history—the reelection effort, more critically, loses tangible electoral tools that will be important in swing states North Carolina and Virginia.

The Obama campaign’s methods were on display in the way tickets were distributed to the now-canceled outdoor event. The so-called community credentials were not handed out at offices and events. Instead, people had to apply for them and then go online to activate them. Campaign officials said that 65,000 had activated their tickets and an additional 19,000 were on what they called “a hard waiting list.”

Kerrigan said that the shut-out spectators were notified on Wednesday by e-mail that they could not attend.

Among those who had been given tickets to the speech were 6,000 North Carolinians who had signed up for the campaign’s “9-3-1” program. That meant they had to volunteer for nine hours over three shifts to get one seat. That represented 54,000 hours of registering new voters, calling other North Carolinians to sign them up.

Top officials made the decision around 8 a.m. Wednesday, after a conference call with Kerrigan, senior campaign strategist David Axelrod, campaign manager Jim Messina, and his deputies Stephanie Cutter and Julianna Smoot. A key organizer speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations said that officials had backup plans in place, but details remained unresolved. “They had the contingency plan; it was all mapped out. Now they have to execute it,” the organizer said.

Kerrigan said that organizers would need to do “a little bit of programmatic shifting,” including a downsized schedule. Stage events will now launch closer to 4 p.m., he said, rather than the previously planned earlier start. The stage, Kerrigan said, will be smaller than the stadium version.

Later Wednesday, convention officials said there would be no balloon drop inside the arena, a traditional staple of conventions’ final nights. Balloons typically are installed before a convention begins.

Until the announcement about 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the campaign had stuck with its full-speed-ahead intentions on keeping tonight’s show outdoors. Campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Air Force One during the flight to Charlotte, “There were several weather forecasts that were calling for a 30-to-40 percent chance of thunderstorms tomorrow night—which, just to put that in real terms for you, what it means, we would have had to possibly evacuate the stadium if there were thunderstorms.”

Secret Service agents said that uptown Charlotte’s security and street-closures plan would not change from Wednesday because the Time Warner Arena is already secured. Several road and parking restrictions around the stadium set to take effect starting Wednesday evening and ending on Friday have been canceled because of the venue change.

The level of door security is not expected to change for convention-goers regardless of the venue—none of the prohibited items, including umbrellas, will be allowed into the arena during Obama’s speech. But the crowds are expected to increase dramatically, exacerbating already-clogged streets and long security lines.

“The checkpoints are already established, so what’s here is here,” said one Secret Service agent patrolling the perimeter of the arena on Wednesday morning, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity. But for Obama’s speech, the agent cautioned, “you can probably count on it being three times as busy.”

Catherine Christman, a media consultant leading a group of convention attendees from South Carolina colleges and universities, said she was sorry to lose out on watching the speech in person. “It’s a bit of a scramble, but it doesn’t look like logistically it’s going to work out,” she said. “Of course, we’re all disappointed.”

Whether the complications surrounding the speech muzzle its message or dent Obama’s aura of competence remains an open question. Democratic Sen. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania said, “In Washington, it’s an interesting thing to bat around, I think, but it’s not going to matter. People are going to listen to what he’s going to say.” For Gwendolyn Clarke’s daughter Courtney, though, the disappointment of being denied attendance had turned her off Obama altogether. She did not plan to watch the speech on television, she said, and went further.

“You can rest assured, Courtney will be voting for Ryan and Romney,” Courtney said.
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