By Lisa Wangsness, Globe staff
ST. PAUL -- Mitt Romney delivered a harsh broadside against Washington in his speech to his party's convention tonight, painting the nation's capital as a left-wing outpost ripe for recapturing this fall.
Although a Texas Republican has held the White House for eight years, Romney told his party that Washington "has been looking to the Eastern elites, to the editorial pages of the Times and the Post, and the broadcasters from the coast" and that it was time to look to two Western conservatives, John McCain and Sarah Palin, for deliverance.
"Is a Supreme Court decision liberal or conservative that awards Guantanamo terrorists with constitutional rights? It's liberal!" he said, as the crowd joined him in response. "Is a government liberal or conservative that puts the interests of the teachers union ahead of our children? It's liberal! Is a Congress liberal or conservative that stops nuclear power plants and offshore drilling making us more and more dependent on Middle Eastern tyrants? It's liberal!
"....We need change all right, change from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington!" he said.
Romney's speech underscored the difficulty facing the Republican Party as it tries to speak to a deeply dissatisfied electorate, a challenge he tackled in his own campaign for president with a good deal more nuance than he did last night. But the convention crowd, hotly indignant over the controversy swirling around Palin, was in a red-meat mood and embraced Romney's rhetoric with enthusiasm.
"He was awesome!" said Ken Leonard, who like his fellow Texan delegates wore a straw cowboy hat and cheered mightily after the speech. "The pride in our country just exudes from the man. He is just an awesome leader for our country."
Romney, who had been considered a top prospect for vice president, was consigned to the role of warming up the crowd for Palin cq, McCain's surprise pick. But the scheduling turmoil created after Hurricane Gustav threw the convention off-schedule, forcing Republicans to cram four days of speakers into three nights. It was not clear earlier this week whether he would get a prime-time slot.
As he spoke, not everyone in the hall was paying attention. He went onstage at about 8:15 p.m. Eastern time, before the major television networks began broadcasting, and many delegates were still milling around the floor, socializing.
He did get the crowd's attention, though, when he took an oblique swipe at Michelle Obama cq, who has drawn harsh criticism for saying in February, after her husband fared well in a string of primaries, that she was proud of her country for the first time in her adult life. She later clarified the remark.
"Just like you, there has never been a day when I was not proud to be an American," Romney said, as the crowd burst into deafening cheers and then chanted, "USA! USA!"
At another point, he said that he had another recommendation for solving global warming: "Let's keep Al Gore's private jet on the ground." The crowd roared.
A press release put out by the Republican National Committee before the speech suggested that Romney would also address McCain's "ability to repair Washington's partisan environment." That would have been in keeping with the convention's overall theme, "Country First," and with last night's topic, "reform." That didn't happen -- he stuck firmly to railing against Democrats.
"That's what surrogates are good for," said Kerry Healey, Romney's former lieutenant governor, a top Massachusetts supporter of his presidential campaign and a delegate to the convention. "Senator McCain needs to strike a non-partisan tone, but this is a convention and it's entirely appropriate to point out differences between the parties as Mitt did."
In at least one case, however, Romney seemed to venture too far, saying that liberals want to "grow government and raise taxes to put more people on Medicaid." Dependency, he said, "is death to initiative, to risk-taking and opportunity."
The Massachusetts health reform law, which Romney took credit for helping to create and signed into law in 2006, depends on expanding the Medicaid program to extend health insurance to more people. Since it was implemented, Medicaid rolls have increased by 72,000, and 176,000 people have obtained insurance partially subsidized with Medicaid money.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.