Paul Ryan’s story about his mother capped off a night full of small business references. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Republicans have made the growing national debt and sluggish economic recovery the central themes of their gathering this week in Tampa. But small businesses have spent their fair share of time in the convention’s spotlight, too, as party leaders try to sell their ticket to voters on Main Street.

On Wednesday, Paul Ryan capped off an evening littered with small business references by sharing an emotional story about his mother, Betty Douglas. He explained that, following his father’s death, his mother returned to school and eventually launched her own interior decorating company in Wisconsin.

“She earned a new degree and learned new skills to start her small business,” Ryan said during his address accepting the vice presidential nomination. “It wasn’t just a new livelihood. It was a new life, and it transformed my mom from a widow in grief to a small business woman whose happiness wasn’t just in the past. Her work gave her hope, it made our family proud.”

Ryan went on to call his mother his “role model” before continuing his party’s relentless assault on the president’s “you didn’t build that” remark.

“All the corner shops in our towns and cities, the restaurants, cleaners, gyms, hair salons, hardware stores — these didn’t come out of nowhere,” Ryan said. “If small business people say they made it on their own, all they are saying is that nobody else worked seven days a week in their place. Nobody showed up in their place to open the door at five in the morning, nobody did their thinking and worrying and sweating for them.”

President Obama and Mitt Romney have been stumping for small businesses regularly since the campaign heated up this summer, each suggesting small companies play an enormous role in creating jobs but arguing that his opponent’s policies block the road to success.

So far, Romney’s message appears to be resonating. While the national polls are nearly deadlocked, a recent survey shows 61 percent of small business owners plan to vote for Romney in November, more than double the 26 percent who favor a second term for Obama. Nevertheless, two in five respondents said their vote could swing based on the small business issues discussed at the conventions.

Perhaps that’s why nearly every Republican speaker has made a direct appeal to Main Street. Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, for instance, discussed her work at a family-owned fruit stand. South Dakota Sen. John Thune spoke of his grandfather’s small hardware store, and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte referenced her husband’s small landscaping company.

“My concern is that President Obama is making it very difficult for small businesses to get started, to create jobs and to survive,” Ayotte told the crowd on Tuesday. “The Obama Administration wants to bury them with rules, regulations and red tape.”

Mia Love, mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, placed today’s entrepreneurs and innovators on a pedestal alongside the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Speaker of the House John Boehner (Ohio) mentioned his own experience starting a business, and Ann Romney managed to slip a reference into her speech, calling Bain Capital a “small company” that grew.

Even Condoleeza Rice, one of the party’s foreign policy leaders, took a moment to emphasize the dire state of the economy and the important role small firms must play in the recovery.

“Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will rebuild the foundation of American strength, our economy, stimulating private sector-led growth and small business entrepreneurship,” Rice said.

Punctuating Republicans’ message to small businesses, the owner of a small manufacturing firm took the stage last night to address regulatory burdens, trade laws and health-care concerns that he said are stunting the growth and often threatening the survival of American companies.

“We need an administration that will lessen the tax burdens and government regulations that strangle small businesses,” Steven Cohen, president of Screen Machine Industries in Pataskala, Ohio, told the audience. “Unnecessary regulations and mandates imposed on business make our products more expensive to make and less competitive to sell.”

Cohen added that Romney’s policies would “give our companies the opportunity to expand and hire again.”

Democrats will have a chance to make their own case to voters — including those in the small business community — next week in Charlotte. The current list of speakers (not yet fully unveiled) includes co-founders from Costco and CarMax, but the party has yet to announce any small business owners slated to take the stage at the convention.

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