By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
CHARLOTTE - Four years and 1,500 miles later, an event originally designed to reprise the closing-night magic of the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver has evolved into something more complicated - a story of inside, outside.
Tens of thousands of people who expected to be on hand to hear President Obama accept his party's nomination tonight are watching on TV instead.
Citing concerns about potentially stormy weather, convention managers shifted Obama's speech from Bank of America Stadium, which would have seated about 75,000, to Time Warner Cable Arena, which accommodates a fourth of that.
Some stadium ticket holders have checked out of hotels and headed to the airport; some are hanging around, trying to cadge an arena pass; some are attending one of the scores of "watch parties" in the state featuring livestream coverage of the speech hosted by actor Kal Penn.
Thousands of campaign volunteers who had tickets to the stadium gathered in a giant ballroom in the convention center to watch the speech on two huge screens. They waved flags, screamed and cheered the other speakers. Rahul Wadhavkar of Charlotte said that his 9-year-old daughter Devika "was really let down" by the venue change, and that they could have watched Obama's speech at home.
"But we said, 'So what? Let's show up anyway,' " he recalled. "We came down to show our support."
The move inside was disappointing, "but you can't control the weather," says Martha Jane West, 80, a Missouri delegate from St. Louis. "Look at what happened in Louisiana."
But West has a seat, and she's seen Obama speak before (his famous 2004 keynote in Boston). Not so Britanny Cadle, 18, a freshman at Central Piedmont Community College, whose much-cherished pass to the stadium speech is suddenly worthless.
When she learned she'd be shut out, "I was really disappointed," she says. And apparently a little bitter: "I guess the most important - or wealthiest - people come first."
The arena is filled with people with affiliations and connections - more than 5,000 delegates and alternates, plus party staff, donors and guests. And it's packed. Fire marshals have closed the hall, and people leaving the arena have been warned they might not get back in.
Many of those who had stadium passes earned them by standing in line for hours or working as convention or campaign volunteers. Gary Baum, 52, a lawyer from Cupertino, Calif., flew to Charlotte and volunteered this week in hopes of getting to see Obama's speech.
For about five hours he stood in the Convention Center, holding an "Ask Me" sign and dispensing information. "It's a bummer," he says. Now he's flying home, hoping to arrive in time to see the speech on TV; an e-mail inviting him to a Charlotte watch party arrived after he'd left for the airport.
He's not the only one bummed out. Many Democrats here wish they were someplace else tonight - those outside the arena who wish they were inside, and those inside who wish they could have been outside at the stadium.
And as skies cleared after afternoon rains, it seemed it might have been OK to have had the event outside after all.
P.G. Sittenfeld, an Ohio delegate who was in Denver four years ago, says the very idea of an outdoor session was part of what made the Obama campaign so different.
"There's a certain audacity of saying, 'We're going to fill a 70,000-seat stadium,'" says Sittenfeld, a 27-year-old Cincinnati city councilman. "It makes it more gladiatorial, more football-like. ... Imagine watching something in the Roman Coliseum vs. Shakespeare's Globe. Both great venues, but one packs more punch."
Organizers had hoped to replicate the atmosphere at Invesco Field in 2008 when Obama became the first African-American to accept a major party nomination. He did so before a crowd of more than 80,000 on a clear, hot, dry night, as the sun faded behind the Rockies.
Julia Hicks, a 63-year-old Colorado delegate, says that after the venue change, "I had to call 15 family members and tell them they couldn't come. They'll just have to get some apple pie moonshine and watch it on television."
But for some, there was a happy ending.
After making the trip from Chicago to Charlotte they'd planned for six months, 40-something Obama volunteers Valerie Thomas and Lenora Harris were wet and disappointed on Tuesday night, waiting for a shuttle that was two hours late.
They had tickets for Obama's stadium speech, but figured, based on the weather, they wouldn't get to use them.
They were right. The next morning, the convention committee announced the speech was moving indoors. "We were very disappointed," Thomas said. "But I think somewhere in our spirit we kind of knew that it was going to work out."
Right again. Waiting next to them in the rain for the shuttle were Louisianans Marshall Pierite, a member of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, and his wife, Stephanie.
Thomas and Harris shared their predicament; the Pierites decided to help. He contacted a campaign committee staffer, who made some calls. And on Thursday night, the two women were in the arena, looking forward to hearing the speech they'd expected in a setting they had not.
In an afternoon livestream talk to those shut out of the speech, Obama told his supporters "how much I regret we're not all gathering together."
"We've always been about getting everybody involved," he said. "That's why we took a chance in Denver four years ago, and that's why we wanted to take a chance when it came to North Carolina."
But he said the thunderstorm risk trumped that goal: "Getting 70,000 people in a place is tough. Getting them out is even tougher."
"We can't let a little thunder and lightning get us down," he added. "We're going to have to roll with it."
The AFL-CIO said some of its staffers have given up their credentials to people who've been helping them here, such as hotel workers and drivers. "Instead," said Richard Trumka, president of the labor organization, "we'll be having our own little watch party with some barbeque."
Interest in the speech is so acute in part because of Obama's reputation as an orator. He's competing against himself, including such famous speeches as his 2004 keynote, his 2009 inaugural and, above all, his 2008 acceptance.
As Theodore Roosevelt's daughter Alice Longworth, once said, referring to Thomas Dewey's doomed second run for the White House in 1944, "You can't make a soufflé rise twice."
Contributing: Gregory Korte, Jackie Kucinich, Alan Gomez, John McAuliff