The Democrats are set to kick off their convention tonight with Michelle Obama taking the podium to bolster the already significant advantage that the party ticket has among women.
But yesterday on the eve of their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is billed as a riposte to last week's Republican extravaganza in Tampa, Democrats were struggling to extricate themselves from quicksand and answer the charge that ordinary Americans are worse off now than they were four years ago.
The normally disciplined Democratic machine was in urgent damage-control mode after three of its top lieutenants seemed to stumble over the weekend when challenged in television interviews to answer the question that is at the heart of this election: has life improved in the four years since President Barack Obama was elected?
"No," was the initial response of Governor Martin O'Malley, of Maryland, when it was put to him on Sunday by one interviewer. Two other leading Obama aides, David Plouffe and David Axelrod, also seemed to prevaricate on the matter.
"The average American recognises that it took years to create the crisis that erupted in 2008 and peaked in January of 2009," Mr Axelrod said. "And it's gonna take some time to work through it."
If Michelle Obama has a job on her hands, a similar task to fence in Hispanic voters will be left to Julian Castro, the Mayor of San Antonio, Texas. A fast-rising star in the party, he will fill tonight's important keynote slot, the same one given to Mr Obama at the 2004 Democratic convention when he instantly became a national figure.
The Republicans leapt with glee yesterday through the window left wide open for them by Messrs Plouffe, Axelrod and O'Malley. It allowed them to refocus attention on the ailing economy.
Among the first to pounce was Mr Romney, who issued a statement marking the Labour Day bank holiday with an undisguised reference to the theme. The holiday, he said, is "a chance to celebrate the strong American work ethic", adding: "For far too many Americans, today is another day of worrying when their next paycheque will come."
While Mr Romney himself is expected to keep a fairly low profile as the Democrats rally this week, his election team will do all it can to run interference by plugging away on the "are-you-better-off" question. That started yesterday as Mr Ryan dipped into North Carolina with a campaign event in Greenville.
Democratic aides were sent back to the TV studios yesterday to correct the mistakes of 24 hours earlier. "Are we better off today than we were four years ago when President Obama was elected?" Stephanie Cutter, a spokeswoman, asked. "Absolutely. Let me just walk you through what life was like four years ago."
She pointed to the car-industry rescue and contrasted the 3.5 million jobs lost in the six months before Mr Obama was elected with the 4.5 million he has created since coming to office.
"We are clearly better off as a country because we're now creating jobs rather than losing them," Mr O'Malley said on CNN yesterday. (© Independent News Service)