WASHINGTON - On the opening day of the Republican National Convention, the party chairman said the American people "need to prosecute the president on what he promised and what he delivered." That's just what the GOP tried to do this past week in Florida.
Reince Priebus, and speaker after speaker, took to the stage to make the case that Barack Obama was guilty of overregulation, abuse of power, dishonesty, wanton spending and class warfare, and that he deserved no more time in the White House beyond January, when his current term ends.
In the legal world, the prosecution gets to make the opening statement and the closing remarks. But this is politics, and now it's the incumbent's turn.
Before the Democrats open their convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, the public gets a political pause, with time for a Labor Day cookout and maybe a trip to the movies. Even Democrats, says media strategist Fred Davis, have "room for minor adjustment" to the case they want to make.
"I'd always rather be the last car dealer you visit and the last convention you watch," says Davis, creative director for the 2008 GOP gathering. "Because the first guy is out of mind already."
In pro football, they flip a coin to see which team will receive first and which will kick. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick says his decision often depends on "what the wind is going to be." About 60 percent of the time, the coin-toss winner opts to receive, and about the same percentage of those teams go on to win the game.
But the order of the national party conventions is effectively preordained.
The tradition since 1932 has been that the incumbent's party goes second. That worked out great for George H.W. Bush in 1988, not so well four years later. In 2008, the Democrats were set to convene first, in Denver, when the GOP learned ahead of time that the other party was planning elaborate staging, with Grecian columns.
The Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, "asked for and got a very Spartan set that he thought was fitting for the time," says Davis, who worked for McCain. "A simple black stage with one giant TV screen."
When the Democrats heard about the GOP set, Davis says, they "dramatically reduced the opulence" of their own backdrop. Still, he says, "even in its scaled-down nature, it was big and elaborate and grand."
The conventions weren't always back to back like this. They used to be about a month apart. In recent decades they have been derided as mere coronations, with the nominee ordained long before.
But as sterile and orchestrated as these gatherings have become, author Norman Mailer once wrote, they remain a reminder "that politics in America is still different from politics anywhere else because the politics has arisen out of the immediate needs, ambitions, and cupidities of the people." Our politics, Mailer wrote, "still smell of the bedroom and the kitchen" rather than being handed down from the aristocracy.
There's not much difference between the conventions when it comes to how much thought people put into them. A Pew Research Center survey out this past week found that only 44 percent of adults cared what happened at the Republican convention, and just 43 percent gave a hoot about the Democratic one. Among independents, interest was about 7 percentage points lower.
But with the candidates running in a near dead heat, and delegates for Texas Rep. Ron Paul parading around the GOP convention floor with clothespins on their noses, the pressure was on Romney to close the deal before the Democrats claimed the spotlight.
The GOP convention's theme was built largely around an Obama quote ("You didn't build that") that the president and many others say was taken out of context. Those three days in Tampa were all about attacking Obama's performance — on jobs, on foreign policy, on spending — and putting him in the position of having to defend that record.
The old saw is that the best defense is a good offense. Before the Republicans had even brought the gavel down on their convention, prominent Democrats were calling for a counteroffensive.
On Thursday morning, Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee in 2004, made a fundraising appeal. The decorated Vietnam veteran reminded the faithful about the devastating ads from outside groups that questioned his military record.
"I have one message burned into my memory for everyone who cares about the outcome of this year's presidential election," he wrote. "Respond quickly and powerfully to attacks from the other side."
In the courtroom, the prosecution gets the first and last word because it is the party with the burden of proof. But here, it's unclear which side bears the real burden, says defense attorney Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project but perhaps more famous for helping win an acquittal for O.J. Simpson in his murder trial.
"Is it the incumbent or the challenger?" he asks. Given the current wind conditions, he says, "I think the president's probably better served having the last word."
In the end, Romney v. Obama is being tried in the court of public opinion, and neither side is resting until Nov. 6, Election Day.