TAMPA — Mitt Romney claimed the Republican presidential nomination here Thursday night with a promise to restore the nation’s economic strength and a critique of President Obama’s record, which he said has turned hope and change into failure and disappointment for the nation’s families.
Romney’s speech, which marked the culmination of a five-year quest for his party’s nod, was at times personal, as the former Massachusetts governor responded to those who said he needed to show more of himself to narrow an advantage Obama holds in personality polls. But he rarely lost focus on the overriding issue of the campaign. He argued that he has the ideas, experience and leadership skills to pull the fragile economy out of its sluggish recovery.
Romney’s address was the highlight of a storm-shortened Republican National Convention week in Tampa. The gathering opened a day late because of the threat of a hurricane and it began with low energy at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. It built to an emotional peak Thursday night with a program that took the audience through many phases of the nominee’s life and included powerful and sometimes poignant testimony about a Romney rarely seen on the campaign trail.
A night after Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the vice-presidential nominee, offered sharp and sometimes sarcastic criticism of Obama’s record, Romney played on the expectant feelings that accompanied Obama into office 31 / 2 years ago. “You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him,” he said.
Romney sought to contrast himself and his agenda with some of the grandiose rhetoric of Obama’s 2008 campaign, presenting himself as a more grounded, focused and modest leader. “President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet,” he said. “My promise is to help you and your family.”
He pledged that his singular focus as president would be employment and said he would create 12 million new jobs through a program that includes tax cuts, domestic energy independence, deficit reduction and the repeal of Obama’s health-care law. Although short on details, Romney’s speech set up a campaign that will offer voters two dramatically different philosophies about how to fix the economy and the role government should play in the economy and in Americans’ lives.
Romney used the speech to address some of the issues that have dogged his candidacy, both those created by the Obama campaign’s attacks and those that are the result of his sometimes uneven performance as a candidate.
Facing a gender gap, he focused attention on women. Attacked by Obama for his record in business, he said Obama doesn’t understand capitalism. Criticized for his wealth, he said, “In America, we celebrate success, we don’t apologize for it.” Criticized for not showing his human side, he talked about his family and faith.
Republicans arrived in Tampa at the beginning of the week with Romney and Obama locked in a dead-heat race that has changed little over the summer. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in mostly negative ads and intensive campaigning by both candidates, neither Obama nor Romney has been able to seize the advantage.
Romney’s campaign expected a modest bump in opinion polls as a result of the week’s activities in Tampa. But with Obama and the Democrats set to start their convention in Charlotte on Tuesday, whatever advantage accrues to the Republicans in the next few days could quickly dissipate after the Democrats conclude their events on Thursday.
Romney entered the Tampa Bay Times Forum just after 10:30 p.m., walking from back to front, shaking hands, and greeting delegates and longtime friends before climbing the steps onto the stage, where he said, “I accept your nomination.”
Much of the program preceding Romney’s appearance was most notable for the lengths to which the nominee’s advisers went to fill in the details of his biography, which has received limited attention in the past.
The most dramatic was the focus on Romney’s religious faith and the role he has played as a lay pastor in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, helping families in need. This is an area of the candidate’s life that he has often been reluctant to discuss in detail, but the campaign has begun to open a window to it as a way to humanize the nominee and demystify the Mormon Church.
Ted and Pat Oparowski, whose son received a cancer diagnosis at age 14, and Pam Finlayson, whose daughter was born premature and with permanent brain damage, offered powerful and emotional testimony about the compassion and care Romney showed them as they dealt with illnesses that eventually took their children’s lives.
As members of the audience wiped away tears, Finlayson said: “It seems to me when it comes to loving our neighbor, we can talk about it, or we can live it. The Romneys live it every single day. . . . I know him to be a loving father, man of faith and caring and compassionate friend.”
The program featured videos and speeches by business partners and clients from Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, a private-equity firm he co-founded whose record has become a flash point in the campaign and the target of attacks by the Obama campaign.
Obama’s campaign has highlighted cases in which Bain bought, sold or shuttered companies with the firm’s partners making a hefty return on their investment. Tom Stemberg, who founded Staples, one of Bain’s major success stories, countered by arguing that Obama and his administration do not understand business or what motivates entrepreneurs.
The night’s agenda also included a focus on Romney’s role in turning around the troubled 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. As a dozen Olympians came onto the stage, the audience broke into chants of “USA! USA!” Mike Eruzione, captain of the U.S. hockey team that improbably won the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Games, spoke of Romney’s management and high ethics that helped save the Salt Lake City Games 22 years later.
Romney’s tenure as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 was highlighted, but although video clips included his record on fiscal issues, there was no mention of his signature accomplishment, the passage of a health-care law that became a model for Obama’s plan.
Thursday’s program also featured speeches by Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.); former Florida governor Jeb Bush; former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and his wife, Callista; and actor Clint Eastwood, whose appearance was not announced until Thursday.
Eastwood delivered a bizarre and rambling series of attacks on the president, who was portrayed as an empty chair next to the actor. He brought down the house when he said, “When somebody does not do the job, we’ve got to let him go,” prompting chants of “Let him go! Let him go!”
Rubio, one of the GOP’s rising stars, drew a prime-time speaking slot. “Our problem with President Obama isn’t that he’s a bad person,” he said. “By all accounts, he, too, is a good husband and a good father, and thanks to lots of practice, a pretty good golfer. Our problem is he’s a bad president.”
Bush talked mostly about education but first spoke as a member of one of the Republican Party’s leading families by calling out Obama for explaining his economic record by pointing to the problems he inherited from the administration of former president George W. Bush, Jeb Bush’s brother.
“Mr. President, it’s time to stop blaming your predecessor for your failed economic policies,” Jeb Bush said. “Mr. President, you were dealt a tough hand, but your policies have not worked.”
The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 54 percent of Americans blame George W. Bush for current economic problems, compared with 32 percent who blame Obama.
Romney did not lack advice in the hours before his speech. Jeb Bush urged him not to listen to most of that advice and told him to simply “speak from the heart.”
“That’s been hard for a guy who’s been brought up, trained, lived his life in a way of great discipline and reserve,” Bush told reporters and editors from The Washington Post and Bloomberg News at a breakfast Thursday morning. “You can’t undo 63 years of how you’ve lived.”
Romney and Ryan toured the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Thursday afternoon, joining about 100 campaign staff members for a photo in front of the stage. Romney spent a few minutes onstage checking out the lectern and adjusting the teleprompters. Accompanying him were members of his team’s senior staff: campaign manager Matt Rhoades, chief strategist Stuart Stevens, media adviser and convention producer Russ Schriefer, longtime spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, and senior adviser Peter Flaherty.