By Jeff Mason
(Reuters) - The Greek columns may be banished and the "hope" and "change" signs gone, but President Barack Obama's pitch to American voters at the Democratic National Convention this week will have echoes of his 2008 speech, when he cast himself as a visionary leader in touch with the nation's priorities.
Dogged by a sluggish economy and in a tight race with Republican rival Mitt Romney, Obama will use his time in the spotlight on Thursday to focus on education, tax cuts for those making less than $250,000, energy, immigration and social issues, his advisers indicated.
By talking in more specific terms than Romney did last week, Obama's team hopes to draw a contrast between the two men.
The president's team believes that Romney missed a big chance during the Republican convention to lay out a blueprint for fixing the U.S. economy.
Romney called for fewer government regulations and lower taxes but offered few details in a speech that emphasized his biography and amounted to a rebuttal of months of attacks from Obama's team. The Obama campaign has cast the former private equity executive as an aloof tycoon who is out of touch with middle-class America.
Unlike the former Massachusetts governor, Obama needs no re-introduction to the American public, his campaign advisers say.
So as Romney's campaign casts Obama as a failure in improving the economy, the president - trying to become the first since World War II to be re-elected with an unemployment rate above 8 percent - will argue that he has better ideas to help the country recover from the recession that began under Republican George W. Bush.
"This Thursday night, I will offer you what I believe is a better path forward - a path that grows this economy, creates more good jobs, strengthens the middle class," Obama said in a preview of his remarks at a campaign stop in Iowa. "The good news is, you get to choose which path we take. We can take their path or we can take the path that I'm going to present."
Obama's team aims to fill the nearly 74,000-seat Bank of America stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the president will deliver his speech, and produce a populist feel that contrasts with Romney's convention.
With tens of thousands in the stadium and millions watching on television, the prime time speech will be Obama's most prominent opportunity to date to make his case for re-election.
Advisers and outside analysts said the president will use the opportunity to highlight elements from his campaign speeches: his support of a bailout that saved the U.S. auto industry, ending the war in Iraq, presiding over the death of Osama bin Laden, and championing women's rights.
"Most Americans aren't hearing his stump speech except in little bits and pieces," said Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton who worked on convention speeches in 2000, 2004, and 2008.
"He absolutely shouldn't come up with a brand new message, a brand new take on who he is, where he comes from, what he's been doing and what he plans to do in the next term," Shesol said.
Obama vaulted onto the national stage as an Illinois state senator in 2004, when he gave a well-received address for the Democratic presidential nominee that year, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.
Four years later in Denver, Obama delivered his own acceptance speech, drawing criticism from Republicans for the setting - a stage adorned with faux Greek columns. Still, Obama basked in the energy of a huge stadium crowd, a symbol of the momentum that helped propel him to victory that year.
A lot of that momentum is gone now.
Unemployment is at 8.3 percent, raising questions about whether Obama can match the huge support he received among minorities and young people four years ago.
Meanwhile, new Republican-backed voter ID laws in several states could undermine turnout for minority and low-income voters in particular, as they are among the groups most likely to have difficulty obtaining the required identification.
MAKING HIS CASE
In Charlotte, Obama will have some significant help in making his case.
His popular wife, Michelle, former president Bill Clinton and others will offer testimonials with forward-looking themes.
Clark Judge, a former speechwriter for Republican President Ronald Reagan, said Obama was unlikely to dwell on the themes of "hope" and "change" because that would require him to defend promises he did not keep from 2008.
"The problem with doing too much of that is he's then got to explain failure, and I'm not sure that they want to get into that," Judge said. He added that he expects Obama to keep on attacking Romney's plan to revamp Social Security and Medicare, popular safety net programs for the elderly.
Obama's advisers watched the Republican convention closely but said they will not change their plans for Charlotte in response.
"In terms of rebutting Republicans or altering what we're going to achieve (this) week, really, there's no impact" on the Democrats' convention strategy, said Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter. "I think the American people are smarter than that."
David Axelrod, Obama's chief campaign strategist, said Romney's speech was filled with "snarky lines" and "gauzy reminiscences of the past." He said Obama's address would be markedly different.
"This speech is going to reflect the thinking of a leader who has great confidence in this country and a ... clear sense of what we need to do to continue to repair the damage that was done by the recession and to reclaim the economic security that many Americans have lost," Axelrod said.
(Editing by David Lindsey and Christopher Wilson)
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