Pens that play a recorded speech by U.S. President Barack Obama are for sale outside the convention.
Pens that play a recorded speech by U.S. President Barack Obama are for sale outside the Time Warner Cable Arena on the second day of the Democratic National Convention. Photo by AFP
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CHARLOTTE - National political conventions may be the most overhyped events in U.S. politics - especially when a party is trying to sell the same candidates twice, using the same stories and some of the same speakers. In comparison to the 2008 Democratic convention, even the buttons with the candidate's portraits, those inevitable accessories of political gatherings, seem much less imaginative this year.

But conventions provide the necessary bubble to create the unity and excitement desperately needed for the push to the elections. Besides, no one can claim conventions are not fun for the participants. Otherwise, why would they endure long walks in a downtown blocked to most vehicles, under intermittent rain, and sit through an endless program of speeches?

Maurice Holland, lifetime Democrat and a member of the North Carolina delegation to the Democratic National Convention, is attending the quadrennial gathering for the first time in his life. Roaming with some 35,000 delegates, spectators, politicos and reporters between the events in downtown Charlotte, he hopes the convention will give Barack Obama the necessary momentum to be re-elected on November 6.

Waiting for another event at the Crowne Plaza hotel ballroom, decorated with garlands of balloons in red, white and blue, Holland says he is looking forward to Obama's next term. There is a personal angle, he says: "I am celebrating my 68th birthday next week, and I lived through segregated schools, I watched the civil rights movement. It was providence for him to get elected. Why should I trust Romney if I saw no substance? Obama has a record to be proud of, he earned his place in history, but how much could he do without the Congress? Romney said Obama threw Israel under the bus. And I ask - where? Israel is still a strong country."

A recently retired nurse, he doesn't think America is in good shape - but he is sure his grandchildren attending college have more possibilities than he had. He thinks the United States should concentrate on domestic challenges, but adds: "In our world, with a global economy, one cannot simply walk out and ignore the Middle East."

The opposition speaks

For Holland, then, the choice is clear. For some of the demonstrators outside the Time Warner Cable Arena, it is less so. Bobby Uttley, a long-time Baptist pastor, says he prefers neither candidate - actually, he would prefer the Republicans' No. 2, Paul Ryan, at the top of the GOP ticket, with Donald Trump as his running mate or at least a prominent adviser. "He is a smart guy and knows how to make money," Uttley noted.

Pat Campbell, an unemployed graphic designer who is holding an Israeli flag and handing out leaflets listing "10 reasons to support Israel," says he is disappointed with the way both parties leaders are treating Israel. "I trust Republicans more, but then they say one thing and do another," said Campbell. For him, there is no question how to approach the sensitive issue: God said he'll bless those who bless Israel, and that's the recipe for America's success.

The platforms of both parties, non-binding though they are, reflect the state of mind of the party activists. Republicans called for banning abortion without exceptions (even in cases of rape or incest ), Democrats "oppose any and all efforts" to weaken or undermine the right of a woman to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, also with no exceptions. Republicans support the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which created so-called Super PACs and made large corporations' and individual moguls' donations to political organizations limitless and barely accountable. Republicans support the decision, which interprets donations as free speech, while Democrats urge "immediate action to curb the influence of lobbyists and special interests on our political institutions."

Republicans pledge to overturn the Obama's massive health care reform; Democrats, while admitting that the law is not perfect, promise to build on it because "no one should go broke because they get sick." Republicans argue that defense budget cuts are dangerous, Democrats call for tough budgetary decisions (and reiterate their commitment to closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, a campaign promise that Obama did not fulfill ). The Republican platform mentions God a dozen times, the Democratic platform - not once.

On Iran, there is only a slight difference in the parties' positions (except for the Republicans' blaming Obama for making the situation worse ). Republicans: "We must retain all options in dealing with a situation that gravely threatens our security, our interests, and the safety of our friends." Democrats: "President Obama has made it clear that the window for diplomacy will not remain open indefinitely and that all options - including military force - remain on the table."

Bipartisan pandering to Jewish voters

On the Middle East, with all its revolutions and turmoil, the parties quite amazingly have shrunk their positions to little more than expressions of support for Israel. It seems less a policy statement than a means of pandering to Jewish voters. Both parties abandoned the Palestinian refugee issue in their platforms. On the UN, the Republicans say: "As long as Israel is treated as a pariah state, the UN cannot expect the full support of the American people." The GOP supports "Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state with secure, defensible borders; and we envision two democratic states - Israel with Jerusalem as its capital and Palestine - living in peace and security."

But here's a change: The Republican platform makes no mention of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, a plank that appeared in the party's 2008 platform. The Democratic platform went the GOP one better - unlike the party's 2008 platform, this one doesn't mention Jerusalem at all. No matter how many paragraphs the Democrats invested in the Obama administration's commitment to Israel's security, omitting Jerusalem was enough to give the Republicans an opening. Mitt Romney said in a statement: "It is unfortunate that the entire Democratic Party has embraced President Obama's shameful refusal to acknowledge that Jerusalem is Israel's capital." Republican House Majority leader Eric Cantor called on those who care about Israel to condemn the Democratic platform. The Union of Orthodox Rabbis expressed their disappointment: "At a time when Arab leaders persistently assert falsehoods about Jerusalem's history, and deny the ancient Jewish connection to our holy city, the decision of national leaders of the Democratic Party to go silent on this issue is extremely disappointing."

According to some Jewish Democratic lawmakers, it was a misstep that put the party on the defensive. Congressman Howard Berman said in a statement: "It should be clear to everyone that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel, always and forever. Israel is our strongest ally in the region, it is a relationship that must be fully embraced, especially during times of regional instability. Anything less, I will not accept."

The Democratic National Council stressed that "the Obama Administration has followed the same policy towards Jerusalem that previous U.S. administrations of both parties have done since 1967; the status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians - which we also said in the 2008 platform."

Some Democrats sought to portray the platform battle over Jerusalem as a distraction. Alan van Capelle, head of the NGO Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, wondered: "How is it that on the night the First Lady speaks about creating opportunity for all Americans, there are those in the Jewish community and media fomenting a partisan debate over the nuances of a staunchly pro-Israel platform when we should be discussing how to invest in education, helping the least fortunate among us, expanding marriage equality and ensuring that all Americans pay their fair share in taxes." Probably true - especially when neither party is genuinely eager to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, or even resume a serious attempt at Middle East peacemaking. But these are elections, and nobody would really expect Republicans to miss the opportunity to accuse Obama of "throwing Israel under the bus."

Here in Charlotte, as impressive and personal as Michelle Obama's speech was ("Even though back then Barack was a senator and a presidential candidate, to me, he was still the guy who'd picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger side door" ), it was still selling the very same president, this time in a basket loaded down with 8.3 percent unemployment.