CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Flinching in the face of economic weakness, President Barack Obama's top aides refused to say Sunday in the run-up to the Democratic National Convention if Americans are better off than they were four years ago.
Obama campaigned in Colorado and Vice President Joe Biden in Pennsylvania as their senior surrogates sought to deflect discomforting questions and turn them into criticism of Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
"The Romney path would be the wrong path for the middle class, the wrong path for this country," said David Plouffe, one of Obama's top White House aides.
But responding to the question that has become a staple of presidential campaigns, he sidestepped when asked if Americans are better off than when Obama took office.
"We've clearly improved ... from the depths of the recession," he said.
Another aide, David Axelrod, said, "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."
Not only the economy, but the weather was also a concern for the Democrats with Obama planning to deliver his prime-time acceptance speech on Thursday night before a crowd of tens of thousands at a football stadium.
An enormous sand sculpture made in Obama's likeness served as a reminder, as if any were needed, that the Democrats were in town. A drenching rain caused damage on Saturday just as work was finishing on the project, but the five-member crew said they had been able to make repairs.
Planeloads of delegates flew into their convention city for two days of receptions before their first meeting in the Time Warner Cable Arena on Tuesday. Hundreds of demonstrators marched through the streets around the hall, protesting what they call corporate greed as well as U.S. drone strikes overseas said to kill children as well as terrorists.
No arrests were reported as dozens of police officers walked along with the parade, carrying gas masks, wooden batons and plastic hand ties.
Biden, campaigning in York, Pa., took a swipe at Romney on foreign policy.
"He said it was a mistake to end the war in Iraq and bring all of our warriors home," the vice president said. "He said it was a mistake to set an end date for our warriors in Afghanistan and bring them home. He implies by the speech that he's ready to go to war in Syria and Iran. "
Democrats have been critical of Romney for making no mention of the war in Afghanistan when he accepted the Republican nomination in Tampa, Fla., last week. He previously criticized Obama for setting a public date for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from the war.
Romney also has faulted Obama for allowing the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad to remain in power. Yet his aides have refused to say for a week if he agrees with French President Hollande's promise to extend diplomatic recognition to a provisional government if Syrian rebels form one.
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.
Running mate Paul Ryan was booked into North Carolina, counterprogramming the Democratic convention rhetoric.
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 has the role of star speaker.
Biden and Obama, deliver their nomination acceptance speeches on Thursday, the convention's final night.
The economy has recovered fitfully at best from the worst recession in decades, and national unemployment is 8.3 percent. Joblessness was spiking when Obama took office and peaked at over 10 percent before it began receding during his term.
While Republicans want the election to be a simple referendum on Obama's handling of the economy, he and the Democrats are determined to make Election Day a choice between him and his rival.
That strategy was on display in the Sunday interview programs.
Plouffe, asked on ABC to answer the better-off question with a yes or no, replied: "I think everybody understands we were this close to a Great Depression. We staved that off. We're beginning to recover. We have a lot more work to do. We need to grow jobs more quickly, we need to grow middle-class incomes more quickly."
Axelrod, on Fox, said, "I can say that we're in a better position than we were four years ago in our economy in the sense that when this president took office, we were losing 800,000 jobs a month. The quarter before he took office was the worst quarter that this country has had economically since the Great Depression, and we are in a different place, 29 straight months of job growth, 4.5 million private sector jobs."
"Are we where we need to be? No. But the problem with what Governor Romney said is for three days they never offered anybody a plausible alternative."