DENVER • As the lame-duck Congress passed a passel of big-ticket bills in the weeks after Democrats were trounced in the 2010 midterms, political pundits came up with a nickname for President Barack Obama:
The Comeback Kid.
Obama is not the first president to have that name attached to him, but civic and political leaders in St. Louis are hoping it sticks. As they try to lure the 2012 Democratic National Convention to the Gateway City, some St. Louis leaders see a theme emerging that might separate their city from its competitors — Minneapolis, Cleveland and Charlotte, N.C.
"We're the best place to come tell a narrative that builds on his comeback," said Jeff Rainford, chief of staff for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. "And St. Louis is a comeback city."
Whether such a narrative resonates in the White House might go a long way toward deciding the home of the next Democratic convention, say civic leaders in the city that hosted the last one.
"You have to be able to tell a story that works," said Denver attorney Steve Farber, "a story that makes sense."
Ultimately, any political convention is about selling the party's nominee to the nation. So the party's message matters more than whatever message the host city wants to send about itself.
Denver's civic leaders say they were able to create a story that suited both for the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
"One of the things you need is a theory as to why you're here," said Denver-based political consultant Floyd Ciruli.
In Denver, the story was about the Mile High City's providing a path to the West, in election terms. Several western states had Democratic governors heading into the 2008 election, even though some of those states had traditionally been Republican hotbeds. So when Denver leaders — including Farber — pitched their city to the Democratic National Committee, they emphasized how important the West would be for the eventual nominee's chances for success.
The story worked, for both Denver and Obama.
And that lesson is now playing out as St. Louis and Charlotte — considered the front-runners for the convention — seek to build the best narrative to attract the attention of the White House.
In Charlotte, the argument is about Obama's making progress in the South, lately a Republican stronghold. The president carried North Carolina in 2008, though many pollsters suggest the South is a lost cause for the Democrats in the next cycle. Republicans made massive gains in the 2010 midterms, and the president's approval ratings are lower in the South than other regions.
Obama also has low approval ratings in Missouri, a state he narrowly lost in 2008.
Rainford hopes the thought of taking back the Show-Me State, long considered a presidential bellwether, would appeal to the president's "comeback" instincts.
But it's hardly the only theme the St. Louis contingent is pitching to the White House.
"St. Louis provides a relatively blank canvas so that the campaign can provide the image they want at the time of the convention," said St. Louis Democrat Brian Wahby, a member of the party's national committee.
Rainford said Missouri represented many facets of the country's landscape.
"Missouri is America," Rainford said. "We're urban, suburban, rural and exurban. Missouri voters are the kinds of voters the president needs to win over."
Mike Dino, who served as the CEO of the Denver convention host committee, said the dynamics of the 2012 convention would be different than 2008, because there was little doubt that Obama would be the nominee.
The organizers of the Denver convention expected the gathering to make history, but they didn't know if Democrats would nominate the first woman presidential candidate in history (Hillary Rodham Clinton) or the first African-American (Obama).
"When you have an incumbent, it certainly changes the equation," Dino said.
In 2008, the Democratic National Committee was the key decision-maker on the convention location, for instance. This year, those bidding for the convention expect the decision to come directly from the White House.
But some of the keys to luring the convention remain the same.
"You have to sell your city as a place where Democrats have to be," Dino said.
St. Louis is hoping that Charlotte's anti-union laws and status as a center for the banking hub — "TARP alley" — will lead Democrats to the Midwest in 2012.
Politically, though, Charlotte could still have the advantage. Obama was the first Democratic presidential nominee to win North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976. The White House may be keen to build on that advantage. Missouri, meanwhile, is a red state that will have one less electoral vote after this year's redistricting effort.
Officials in St. Louis are optimistic that Democrats will look past recent electoral history, and focus instead on the allure of holding a convention square in the nation's midsection.
"We've heard really rave reviews from the site team," said U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis. "I think the real decision at the end, after all of the technical stuff is done, is just going to be on the politics and the narrative of what it looks like. And that's why I think we really are the strongest."
Denver's 2008 theme may still have some panache. St. Louis is, after all, the original gateway to the West, and it has the Arch to prove it.
The West "is still going to be very significant in terms of future elections," said Elbra Wedgeworth, a former Denver city councilwoman who helped lure the 2008 convention to her hometown.
In some respects, St. Louis' attempt to get what would be its largest convention in recent history mirrors Denver's effort. Both cities sought to be players on a larger stage, and to convince businesses, tourists and conventioneers to take another look at their metropolitan areas.
In the case of Denver, the city long had suffered from a "cowtown" image, even though it had a vibrant downtown and lively entertainment district surrounding Coors Field, the Major League Baseball home of the Colorado Rockies. Similarly, St. Louis' reputation has taken some hits with the loss of major industry and suburban flight.
"People think of St. Louis as beer, shoes and cars," Rainford said. "We are not the old, Rust Belt city that some people think we are."
Much like Denver, St. Louis is rehabbing a formerly run-down area of downtown — Washington Avenue — and trying to turn it into a bustling entertainment district. And although the plans for a "Ballpark Village" around Busch Stadium have long been delayed, there could be some progress heading up to the 2012 convention.
And just like the Mile High City, St. Louis is opening a new opera house — the Peabody Opera House — very near the primary convention venue.
St. Louis holds a similarity to another former convention host: Chicago. That Midwestern city was the location for the convention that propelled the original comeback kid — Bill Clinton — to his second term as president.
Might Obama, who has been mimicking President Bill Clinton's post-midterm moves of late, follow Clinton's Midwestern strategy as well?
St. Louis leaders expect the convention decision to be made any day.
Jake Wagman of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.