6 p.m. Democrats do it differently. Toss out the ties and pearls for union tees and floral prints. Trade the handclaps for fist pumps. Lose the house band and bring the noise. Not an hour into the first night of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., and the clamor already eclipses the peak of Tampa, where Mitt Romney accepted the Republican nomination. The crowd cheers the least-read document in U.S. politics, the party platform. “It’s not about partisanship. It’s about pragmatism,” Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J., calls out. “It’s not about left or about right.”
6:03 p.m. Thousands are on their feet, celebrating a country where issues like abortion, gay marriage and income-tax increases are unifying, not divisive. This country does not exist. But it’s their party. “This is our platform!” Booker shouts into the microphone. “This is our American mission!” He brings down the house. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa comes out and gives Booker a bear hug. All in favor? “Aye!” All opposed? Not a peep. Nothing like the Republicans.
6:13 p.m. The governor of North Carolina, Bev Perdue, gives an entirely forgettable speech. She is followed by a video of a young man, Ryan Case, who chokes up as he tells the story of how his parents died without the health insurance they would’ve had if they had lived to see Obamacare. Then Case is onstage. “There’s just no way I’d be able to pay for school without the Pell Grant funding that President Obama doubled,” he says.
(PHOTOS: Democratic National Convention 2012)
6:24 p.m. Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry talks about “working families.” Representatives Charles Gonzalez and Nydia Velázquez talk about Latinos. Velázquez describes undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children as “people who are Americans in every way except on paper.” Huge applause.
6:44 p.m. “Facts are stubborn things,” says Pat Quinn, the governor of Illinois. He calls out the deceptions of the GOP convention: the Medicare thing, the welfare-to-work thing, the General Motors plant in Paul Ryan’s district. Then he says, “There’s something else the Republicans left out of their convention: any explanation of why they call Mitt Romney ‘Governor Romney.’” This is false. Facts are stubborn things.
6:46 p.m. Doug Stern, an Ohio firefighter and self-described former Republican, does his best Joe Biden shtick. “President Obama has my back,” he says. Then comes former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, with a speech designed to win him a Senate seat in his home state. Anthony Foxx, the mayor of Charlotte, tells his overcoming-adversity story. “I learned what it truly meant to be judged by the content of my character,” he says.
7:06 p.m. The boxer arrives. Senate majority leader Harry Reid slowly walks to the podium, ready to rumble. “The Republican Party has become the party of the wouldn’ts and the won’ts,” he says. “I had a front-row seat to watch the Tea Party take over the Republican Party.” He calls Romney the “strongest proponent and clearest beneficiary of this rigged game,” and demands again that the candidate release more tax returns. “His word? His word? Trust comes from transparency, and Mitt Romney comes up short on both.” He leaves the stage to chants of “Harry, Harry.”
7:14 p.m. A few dozen Congresswomen and female candidates take the stage, dressed in brightly colored suits, like a box of crayons. Taking turns, they tick through the list of alleged Republican misdeeds against women, from opposing equal-pay liability legislation to federal funding for contraception to an attempt to narrow the abortion exemption for rape. “Where are the women? Where are the women?” one of them asks, after describing an all-male Republican panel to discuss birth control. “We’re here! The women of America are here!” The crowd is standing again.
7:32 p.m. Jimmy Carter phones in a bland video address, with recycled rhetoric delivered like a tenured professor after a long lunch.
7:36 p.m. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar emerges to big applause, wearing an even bigger cowboy hat. He’s here to explain why Obama’s energy policy is better than Romney’s. The oil-tycoon look adds to the effect. Obama “believes the American Dream should belong to every single American,” Salazar says. “Let’s move forward, not backward.” No one has ever disagreed with those ideas.
7:44 p.m. A Kennedy comes onstage. If we had to guess, we’d say it’s Joseph P. Kennedy III, but who can be sure? Anyway, he’s handsome and Harvard-educated, and talks about “my Uncle Teddy.” This segues into a stirring video tribute to the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. Just a few grainy photos get the crowd going, but it’s nothing compared with the roar when the screen shows old clips of him debating Romney during their 1994 Senate race. “I’m pro-choice. My opponent is multiple choice,” the Liberal Lion quips.
8:01 p.m. Former Florida Congressman Robert Wexler’s turn. He’s here to reassure people that Obama loves Israel a whole lot. The phrases “unflinching commitment,” “never waved” and “unprecedented security cooperation” are thrown around. No mention of the platform dropping the idea that Jerusalem should be the capital.
8:07 p.m. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak starts talking about the automaker bailout and how the GOP is “a once proud party that’s been hijacked by extremists and driven off the flat earth they pretend we’re living on.” He compares the Republican strategy to pyromaniacs blaming firefighters. The whole thing’s a bit confusing. “Romney was wrong, Obama was right,” Rybak says. Oh.
8:15 p.m. Time for Colorado Representative Jared Polis. He’s a father, he says, and a son. And Jewish. And gay. And a Congressman. He has it all. Democrats should support not just his lifestyle but also the lifestyles of devout Christians concerned about the nation’s morality and single women who decide to bring pregnancies to term.
8:20 p.m. Obama appears on the big screen to introduce the next series of speakers. “Women are not an interest group,” he says. “They shouldn’t be treated that way.” Sure doesn’t seem that way tonight. The next speaker, an earnest young woman with braces, says Republicans want to take away her birth control, which isn’t true, and put insurance companies in charge of her care, which already kind of happens. She’s followed by Nancy Keenan, the head of a pro-choice group. “Women in America cannot trust Mitt Romney,” she says. “Four more years!” the crowd chants.
8:32 p.m. A video introduces the next speaker, Marine veteran Nathan Davis. He jogs and does push-ups onscreen. It’s like a Nike ad, but for public service. Davis comes out to talk about how the post-9/11 GI Bill helped veterans. Congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs flying combat helicopters in Iraq, is next, and she agrees. She also accuses Romney of ignoring the war in Afghanistan. “U-S-A, U-S-A,” the crowd says.
8:45 p.m. Here’s Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican and now the governor of Rhode Island, who looks like an aging Tom Hanks with long hair. Moderates will support Obama too, he says, because “there’s nothing moderate about our love of country.” Poll-tested and meaningless.
8:53 p.m. A video promoting Obamacare. The law will help a woman whose daughter was born with a heart defect because it removed lifetime caps on health-insurance payouts. The whole family then comes onstage, and the mother says she’s scared that Republicans will repeal Obamacare. The little girl begins crying. You can’t script this stuff. “Four more years!”
8:57 p.m. Ohio Governor Ted Strickland is bragging about the success of the auto bailout and attacking Romney. He shouts every line like someone just cut off his microphone. “If Mitt was Santa Claus, he would fire the reindeer and outsource the elves,” he yells. “Even his money needs a passport: it summers on the beaches of the Cayman Islands and winters on the slopes of the Swiss Alps.” No word on what Easter Bunny Mitt would do. Or where his money springs and falls.
9:08 p.m. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius tries to explain Obamacare. Even here, people get bored and start chatting to each other, wandering the aisles. It’s an impossible task.
9:16 p.m. Rahm Emanuel could be exciting, but he’s not. Instead of swearing, he loses the crowd with a predictable telling of the President’s bravery and steady leadership in office. He is followed by Kal Penn, the actor from Harold & Kumar, who is funny. He lists Obama’s accomplishments. “Thank you, invisible man in the chair, for that,” he says, and then asks people to refer to him as #sexyface and excuses Rahm’s blandness. “He’s a mayor now. So he can’t use four-letter words. But I’m no mayor … Vote.”
9:32 p.m. The President’s little sister and Michelle’s big brother are charming and likable. They are followed by Lilly Ledbetter, the namesake of Obama’s equal-pay bill. She gets applause for going after Romney’s Swiss bank account.
9:45 p.m. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick gives a vicious, high-flying speech, tearing into Romney’s record: “Romney talks a lot about all the things he’s fixed. I can tell you that Massachusetts wasn’t one of them.” Then he pivots to cast the danger facing Obama. “I will not stand by and let him be bullied out of office,” he says. The crowd roars.
9:57 p.m. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has a better speaking slot but delivers a worse speech. He is the Tim Pawlenty of the Democratic Party — good on paper, but somehow unforgivably bland, like a really good pitchman for an expensive product you probably don’t need. “Swiss bank accounts never built an American bridge,” he says. Fact check: True.
10:06 p.m. One Castro brother introduces another. They wave together, and then Julián Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, gives the keynote. He looks even younger than Marco Rubio and has a brighter smile than Obama’s. “My family’s story isn’t special. What is special is the America that makes our story possible,” he says. It’s that kind of speech. “My mother fought hard for civil rights so instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone,” he continues, not holding a microphone. The best part of the speech comes when he speaks about his 3-year-old daughter Carina Victoria, who sits in the stands. She realizes she is on television and begins to tease her hair in exactly the way a 3-year-old would think a fashion model teases her hair. When Castro finishes, the roar is so deafening that Carina Victoria covers her ears.
10:30 p.m. A video warms the crowd up for Michelle Obama. It’s soft-bio stuff: a humble upbringing, her anti-obesity campaign, shenanigans on late-night TV. “In our household, she’s the conductor, and I’m second fiddle,” the President says. Placards bearing the First Lady’s name are distributed in the hall. The delegates are primed.
10:35 p.m. With the setup complete, the loud speaker greets … someone whom the crowd doesn’t recognize: a military mom from a swing state. Delegates stir with confusion for a moment, before being won over by her charm.
10:38 p.m. Here’s the First Lady, waving with both arms as the crowd sings along to Stevie Wonder and shakes the “Michelle” signs in unison. They’re too amped up to let her speak. Chants of “Four more years!” drown out the first lines of her speech.
10:40 p.m. Michelle Obama talks about military families and meeting heroic Americans as First Lady. “Every day they remind me how blessed we are to live in the greatest nation on earth.” She’s come a long way since 2008, when she caused a stir by saying, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.”
10:45 p.m. Stories about the President’s poorer days, with his rusted car, cheap furniture and undersize shoes. They create a strong contrast with Romney, even if she never mentions him explicitly. “Barack and I were both raised by families who didn’t have much in the way of money or material possessions,” she says. Her dad worked hard despite having a disability. Barack’s grandmother worked hard despite seeing her male colleagues promoted ahead of her. “We learned about dignity and decency, that hard work matters,” the First Lady says. “We learned about honesty and integrity, that the truth matters.” And finally, “We learned about gratitude and humility.”
10:49 p.m. “Being President doesn’t change who you are. It reveals who you are,” she says. She trusts her husband to make the right decisions in office, and voters can too. “The issues that come across the President’s desk are always the hard ones — the problems where no amount of data or numbers will get you to the right answer,” she says, another well-camouflaged dig at Romney, a former business consultant.
10:53 p.m. More personal and political narratives are weaved together. “We were so young, so in love and so in debt,” she says of her early relationship with her husband. “Barack knows what it means when a family struggles. He knows what it means to want something more for your kids and grandkids. Barack knows the American Dream because he’s lived it.” The whole speech could be read as a case against Romney. The President “started his career by turning down high-paying jobs and instead working in struggling neighborhoods where a steel plant had shut down.” Romney worked a high-powered job at a company that once laid off steel workers.
10:57 p.m. The First Lady lists all the things she loves about her husband and all the things he’s done in office. “We’ve got so much more to do,” she reminds the crowd. “Change is hard and change is slow and it never happens all at once.”
11:02 p.m. Her voice cracks as she talks about being a mom and how it should be important to all parents that the President be re-elected. “We must work like never before,” she says. The rest of her speech is inaudible in the hall. The loudspeakers aren’t powerful enough to compete with the noise. The First Lady takes her time leaving the stage. The delegates wave their “Michelle” placards. The benediction is read. The chair gavels us out, tells the delegates to enjoy Charlotte, and we’re done. The party, no doubt, is just beginning.