By CHARLES BABINGTON
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Republicans have no one who can match Bill Clinton’s ability to deliver a forceful, point-by-point defense of President Barack Obama in the campaign’s final two months. Luckily for Mitt Romney, Americans vote for candidates, not surrogates, and a coming cascade of Republican TV ads might drown Clinton’s potent testimonial, which even GOP partisans call a masterpiece.
Obama could not have asked for a more detailed and emphatic rebuttal to every major charge leveled at him. Clinton will take his show to swing states in the next nine weeks, and Democrats will pray that newscasts and social media re-air countless snippets of his 48-minute convention speech.
Some commentators say the former president saved Obama’s re-election. That’s impossible to know, of course. Such predictions may look foolish if later events — say, disappointing monthly jobs reports issued Friday and in October and early November — boost Romney’s call for a change in leadership.
Also, Clinton’s speech ended so late — well past 11 p.m. EDT — that many people had gone to bed in key Eastern Time zone states such as Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
If nothing else, however, Clinton’s emotional but policy-laden address underscored the Republicans’ lack of a comparably famous and skilled spokesman to defend Romney. No one would suggest New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the GOP convention’s keynote speaker, is on Clinton’s level. And the party’s last president, George W. Bush, remains so unpopular that Republicans hardly acknowledge he exists, a poignant contrast to Clinton.
Clinton, scheduled to be in Florida next week, “is going to go around the country in October talking about this speech,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Romney’s camp cannot be happy about that.
Clinton’s speech “was extraordinary,” a “virtuoso political performance,” prominent GOP strategist Steve Schmidt said on MSNBC. “I wish to God, as a Republican, we had someone on our side who had the ability to do that. We don’t.”
Another high-profile Republican consultant, Alex Castellanos, said on CNN: “This will be the moment that probably re-elected Barack Obama.”
Perhaps. But Romney and his allies have raised more money than the Democrats for three straight months, giving them a potentially crucial edge in homestretch TV ads in swing states. Clinton alluded to the problem himself. Republicans, he said, “keep on running the ads” that make unsubstantiated claims that Obama weakened the work requirements for welfare.
No other Democratic document or speech matches Clinton’s address in terms of making a highly publicized, issue-by-issue rebuttal of the chief criticisms of Obama. Many Democrats, in fact, lament that Obama isn’t as succinct and spirited in his own defense.
Some topics were fairly trivial, such as complaints that Obama is emotionally cold. “I want to nominate a man who’s cool on the outside, but who burns for America on the inside,” Clinton said.
Other issues were more substantive. They include these Republican lines of attack:
—“You didn’t build that.” Republicans have pummeled Obama for his awkwardly worded argument that successful businesses rely on public amenities such as roads and schools.
“The Republican narrative is that all of us who amount to anything are completely self-made,” Clinton said. “We know that investments in education and infrastructure and scientific and technological research increase growth. They increase good jobs, and they create new wealth for all the rest of us.”
—Americans are worse off than they were four years ago.
“Are we doing better than that today? The answer is yes,” Clinton said, kicking off his response to a favorite GOP claim.
“When President Barack Obama took office, the economy was in free fall,” Clinton said. “It had just shrunk 9 full percent of GDP. We were losing 750,000 jobs a month.”
“If you look at the numbers, you know employment is growing, banks are beginning to lend again,” he said. “And in a lot of places, housing prices are even beginning to pick up. But too many people do not feel it yet.”
—High unemployment. The nation’s 8.3 percent unemployment rate is Romney’s best issue. Clinton put the best possible face on the problem.
“In 2010, as the president’s recovery program kicked in, the job losses stopped and things began to turn around,” Clinton said. The stimulus “saved or created millions of jobs and cut taxes — let me say this again — cut taxes for 95 percent of the American people. And, in the last 29 months, our economy has produced about 4.5 million private sector jobs.”
Clinton did not mention heavy layoffs in many state and local governments.
—Health care. Clinton gave a detailed defense of the 2010 health care law that Romney vows to overturn.
“Republicans call it, derisively, ‘Obamacare,”’ he said. “They say it’s a government takeover.”
“Individuals and businesses have already gotten more than a billion dollars in refunds from insurance companies” under the law’s spending-and-profit regulations, Clinton said. “More young adults can stay on their parents’ employer-provided insurance plans,” he said, and “millions of seniors are receiving preventive care” under the law.
—Medicare. Clinton assailed Republicans’ plan to convert Medicare, eventually, to a voucher program that wouldn’t necessarily cover all procedures now covered. “It’s going to end Medicare as we know it,” Clinton said.
He chided Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan for opposing Obama’s bid to reduce Medicare payments by $716 billion over 10 years, something Ryan himself once supported. “It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did,” Clinton said.
—Welfare. Clinton was animated in rejecting GOP claims that Obama took the “work requirement” out of welfare.
“This is personal to me,” Clinton said, alluding to his much-debated overhaul of welfare as president. “When some Republican governors asked if they could have waivers to try new ways to put people on welfare back to work,” he said, the Obama administration agreed, but “only if they had a credible plan to increase employment by 20 percent.”
“The requirement was for more work, not less.”
Democratic delegates cheered Clinton’s campaign summary: “I like the argument for President Obama’s re-election a lot better,” he said. “He inherited a deeply damaged economy. He put a floor under the crash. He began the long, hard road to recovery and laid the foundation for a modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs.”
Only 15 hours after Clinton’s speech, the Romney campaign aired a new ad trying to undermine the former president. It shows Clinton — at the height of the 2008 Democratic primary battle between Obama and Clinton’s wife, Hillary — calling Obama’s account of his stand against the Iraq war “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”
Romney, no doubt, is glad that Clinton is unlikely to have another stage as big as Charlotte’s this fall.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Charles Babington covers national politics for The Associated Press.