Republicans set up anti-Obama HQ on sidelines of Charlotte convention

Just outside the security perimeter of the Democratic National Convention, Republicans have set up a “rapid response” unit whose job it is to make sure the pro-Obama message this week does not go un-challenged.

And they are already working at a furious pace.

The Republican National Committee has opened up shop inside the NASCAR Plaza and expects to stay there all week -- running a specialized website, posting video and repeatedly asking the question to anyone who will listen: Are Americans better off than they were four years ago?

Republicans have seized on that question since Maryland Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley answered “no” on Sunday in a national TV interview, only to backtrack Monday.

“In Charlotte, Democrats are going to be on the defense,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Monday, one day before the official start of the convention. “The thrill and pixie dust of Barack Obama’s presidency is gone.”

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Priebus was joined by Utah GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz, as they stood near a NASCAR vehicle emblazoned with a “Romney -- Believe in America ’12” logo.

Chaffetz said Democrats, instead of coming to Charlotte to help Obama, are in fact “running from town,” citing the absence of North Carolina Rep. Larry Kissell, who is seeking re-election and whose district is just a short drive from the convention.

Democrats tried a similar tactic last week in Florida, sending Vice President Biden to the GOP’s host convention city of Tampa and elsewhere in the state. However, Hurricane Isaac forced Biden to cancel his plans.

As Chaffetz and Priebus went on the attack in Charlotte, Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan campaigned 230 miles to the east in Greenville.

Ryan delivered a scathing criticism of Obama's stewardship of the nation's economy, arguing that even conservative punching bag Jimmy Carter's presidency was better as Democrats streamed to North Carolina to nominate Obama for a second term.

"The president can say a lot of things and he will," Ryan told more than 2,000 supporters in East Carolina University's student recreation center. "But he can't tell you that you're better off. Simply put, the Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days compared to where we are right now."

Carter has emerged as a dual GOP target.

“Every president since the Great Depression, except Jimmy Carter and President Obama, who asked voters for a second term could look back at the last four years and say: ‘You are better off today than you were four years ago,’ the Charlotte-based team asked Monday.

Polling suggests the "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" line of criticism may resonate with voters who continue to like Obama personally but are frustrated with the pace of economic recovery two months before Election Day.

"Team Obama can't say the country is better off after four years," said Republican National Committee communications director Sean Spicer. "This will be the most effective counter-programming effort ever conducted by the GOP."

But Democrats, after hesitating in some interviews to definitively answer that question Sunday, said Monday it’s clear the country is better off now.

As O’Malley echoed that message, Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter told NBC News that the country has moved forward “by any measure,” citing the erosion of jobs and auto industry decline that greeted Obama upon taking office.

As the roughly 50-member GOP team huddles in Charlotte, the nearby Romney team, backed by the RNC, will host daily news conferences, release Web videos and feature speakers including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio initially was scheduled to visit Charlotte, but he likely will not because of a personal conflict, according to a Republican aide.

Romney, meanwhile, will spend much of the week in New Hampshire and Vermont preparing for three fall debates with Obama, the first on Oct. 3.

Ryan will play a more prominent role in day-to-day campaigning during the week. After visiting in North Carolina, he is scheduled to campaign Tuesday in Ohio and Iowa. Visits to Colorado, California and Washington state also were being planned.

Preibus made clear the GOP will indeed be assertive in sending out messages from Charlotte but said, “We’re not the type of folks who go into an arena and start shouting.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.