CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (CNN) — When President Obama took the stage Thursday night, he wasn't just competing with the ghosts of conventions present, but with Mitt Romney's performance last week, Bill Clinton's Wednesday, and the first lady's on Tuesday. He had to take on the ghosts of conventions past: comparisons with his stadium acceptance speech four years ago, and the 2004 speech that launched him into the national spotlight.
Those would be tough performances to match in any year -- near-impossible under current circumstances. So he didn't even try: A good deal of the speech came across a bit like a State of the Union address with fewer Republicans and better lighting. But there were a few marks he had to hit -- and did.
• He had to acknowledge that things aren't rosy: "The first time I addressed this convention in 2004, I was a younger man; a Senate candidate from Illinois who spoke about hope -- not blind optimism or wishful thinking, but hope in the face of difficulty; hope in the face of uncertainty; that dogged faith in the future which has pushed this nation forward, even when the odds are great; even when the road is long..."
If you're keeping score, that's at least four references to struggle -- difficulty, uncertainty, great odds, a long road -- in a single sentence.
"Eight years later, that hope has been tested -- by the cost of war; by one of the worst economic crises in history; and by political gridlock that's left us wondering whether it's still possible to tackle the challenges of our time.
"...I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention. The times have changed -- and so have I."
• But he had to paint a plausible picture of rosier times down the road -- offer a concrete path forward, and give skeptical voters the feeling that the next four years could be different than the first:
"But know this, America: Our problems can be solved. Our challenges can be met. The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place. And I'm asking you to choose that future. ..."
"(A)s I stand here tonight, I have never been more hopeful about America...."
"I'm hopeful because of you."
And there were roughly a dozen more references to hope scattered through the speech.
• Hitting the right notes: He had to hit the bipartisan notes that the incredibly vanishing swing voters still tell pollsters they're looking for.
"Last summer, I worked with Republicans in Congress to cut $1 trillion in spending
"Now, I'm still eager to reach an agreement based on the principles of my bipartisan debt commission. No party has a monopoly on wisdom. No democracy works without compromise."
Absent were direct references to the stimulus or Obama's health care plan -- both partisan flashpoints that still get mixed reviews from voters in most opinion polls.
• Drawing contrasts: But he had to draw a sharp contrast with Republicans on issues where he's got public opinion on his side, like tax cuts for the wealthy.
"But when Governor Romney and his allies in Congress tell us we can somehow lower our deficit by spending trillions more on new tax breaks for the wealthy -- well, you do the math. I refuse to go along with that. And as long as I'm President, I never will."
Of course, there may be a pretty short shelf life on the political impact of anything he had to say Thursday. When President Obama spoke, he was probably the only person in the arena who knew what the job numbers coming out first thing the next morning would be: A healthy showing that could turbo-charge any convention bounce - or a disappointing showing that could short-circuit it.
"America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won't promise that now," he said, at the tail end of a speech that put a spotlight on struggle. "Yes, our path is harder -- but it leads to a better place."