TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) -- In the warm-up to the Democratic National Convention, both parties jockeyed for the economic high ground Monday, with Republican Mitt Romney labeling Labor Day "another day of worrying" for too many Americans anxious about finding a job. Supporters of President Barack Obama worked to put a glossy sheen on the economic progress of the recent years after offering a more muddled message over the weekend.
Obama addresses a United Auto Workers Labor Day rally in Toledo before getting his first look at the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac in a stricken parish outside New Orleans. He's to meet emergency personnel who've been laboring since the storm hit last week to restore power and tend thousands of evacuees from flooded lands.
Romney was quick to issue a statement marking Labor Day as "a chance to celebrate the strong American work ethic." But he added: "For far too many Americans, today is another day of worrying when their next paycheck will come."
Obama's backers were up early to try a morning do-over of his supporters' less-than-rosy answers Sunday when asked to answer the classic campaign question: Are Americans better off than they were four years ago?
"Absolutely," said Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager, speaking on NBC's "Today" show. "By any measure the country has moved forward over the last four years. It might not be as fast as some people would've hoped. The president agrees with that."
Martin O'Malley, Maryland's Democratic governor, had answered the same question with a "no" on Sunday before turning the blame to Obama's Republican predecessor. Appearing Monday on CNN, O'Malley tried a more positive turn of phrase, saying, "We are clearly better off as a country because we're now creating jobs rather than losing them. But we have not recovered all that we lost in the Bush recession. That's why we need to continue to move forward" under Obama.
In Boulder, Colo., on Sunday, Obama warned a college crowd that "the other side is going to spend more money than we've ever seen in our lives, with an avalanche of attack ads and insults and making stuff up, just making stuff up."
"What they're counting on is that you get so discouraged by this, that at a certain point you just say, you know what, I'm going to leave it up to somebody else." Obama did not mention his own side's arsenal of negative advertising.
The Republican convention behind him, Romney was staying low for a few days, ceding the political attention to his rival and preparing for the October debates as Democratic conventioneers gathered for the opening of their event Tuesday in Charlotte.
Younger voters gave Obama a big boost four years ago and he can ill afford to see their support drop off in a tight election where the sluggish economy is the dominant issue in the nation and a specific drag to many young people coming out of college or trying to afford it.
But his campaign surely has a more immediate need for young people, too -- helping to fill the seats for Obama's address Thursday. With 6,000 delegates at the convention and thousands more attached to the event, Democrats hope to pack the nearly 74,000-seat outdoor stadium for the prime-time speech.
Obama has only fitfully defended his health care law from the bully pulpit since its enactment but on Sunday took it on directly. The president declared, as he has on occasion, that "I like the name" Obamacare despite its Republican origins as an insult.
"I do care," he said. "I don't know exactly what the other side is proposing; I guess you could call it 'Romney doesn't care.' But this law is here to stay." Republicans have rallied around the idea of repealing the law, although Romney has not laid out a detailed alternative.
Taking a similar critical vein, a new Obama campaign ad running in six closely contested states -- Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia -- claims Romney's policies would "hit the middle class harder" and that he doesn't see the "heavy load" the middle class is carrying.
Vice President Joe Biden joined the fray, accusing Republicans of seeking to undermine the decades-old federal program millions of seniors rely on for health care. "We are for Medicare," he said. "They are for voucher care." That was a reference to a proposal in Congress by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee, to offer future retirees the option of buying health insurance with a government subsidy.
The president and vice president campaigned separately across three battleground states as delegates descended on the Democrats' convention city before their first official meeting Tuesday in the Time Warner Cable Arena.
Some 800 demonstrators marched through the streets around Charlotte's convention hall, protesting what they call corporate greed as well as U.S. drone strikes overseas, said to kill children as well as terrorists. Dozens of police officers walked along with the protesters' parade, carrying gas masks, wooden batons and plastic hand ties. One arrest was reported, for public intoxication.
Biden's itinerary, in particular, underscored the threat that a sluggish recovery and high, 8.3 percent unemployment pose to Democrats seeking another term in power. He was in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, states that have received little attention previously as the candidates, their parties and outside allies concentrate on the areas of the country deemed most competitive. His presence suggested the race in both states was tightening.
Obama's aides and allies flooded the weekend talk shows. All talked down Romney, but had no glowing answer when asked if Americans were better off than four years ago. The president took office during a deep recession that ended in official terms six month later but yielded a paltry recovery with persistently high unemployment, now at 8.3 percent.
Said Obama White House David Plouffe: "We've clearly improved ... from the depths of the recession."
And another aide, David Axelrod: "I think the average American recognizes that it took years to create the crisis that erupted in 2008 and peaked in January of 2009. And it's going to take some time to work through it."
But Democrats didn't miss a beat when it came to criticizing Romney and drawing contrasts between the convention that launched him into the last leg of the race and their own gathering ahead. Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki branded the Romney and GOP agenda an "empty pool with no water and dead leaves."
Romney spent Sunday at his Wolfeboro, N.H., vacation home, leaving only to attend church services with his wife, Ann. Aides said he would spend much of the Democrats' convention week preparing for three fall debates with Obama, beginning on Oct. 3.
Obama aides said they expected Romney and Republicans to outpace the president and his party in fundraising in August because Obama spent less time raising cash than in the month before and because the GOP held its convention -- usually a big money draw -- in August.
At the Democratic convention, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro delivers the keynote speech on Tuesday, followed by first lady Michelle Obama's remarks. Obama and Biden will be nominated for second terms on Wednesday night, when former President Bill Clinton takes the stage as star speaker. Biden and Obama close the convention Thursday night with their nomination acceptance speeches.
Woodward reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Philip Elliott in York, Pa., Kasie Hunt in Wolfeboro, N.H., and Michael Biesecker, Mitch Weiss, Beth Fouhy and Ken Thomas in North Carolina contributed to this story.