TAMPA — Mitt Romney accepted his party’s presidential nomination Thursday night, casting himself as the embodiment of the American ideals of freedom and enterprise, pledging he would restore the promise that he said President Obama had failed to deliver.
With tens of millions of viewers watching the most important speech of his life, Romney painted a fuller portrait of himself, countering the image of a wealthy, out-of-touch, opportunistic politician that his political opponents have spent the past year creating for him.
The former Massachusetts governor used the speech to highlight the country’s economic struggles as he attempted to return his campaign to the central theme he launched it on 15 months ago in a field in New Hampshire.
“What is needed in our country today is not complicated or profound. It doesn’t take a special government commission to tell us what America needs,” he said. “What America needs is jobs. Lots of jobs.”
He also mocked President Obama’s goals, saying to laughter, “President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.”
“The time has come for us to put the disappointments of the last four years behind us,” Romney said in the finale of the abbreviated three-day Republican convention. “To put aside the divisiveness and the recriminations. To forget about what might have been and to look ahead to what can be. Now is the time to restore the promise of America.”
A party that has at times looked at Romney with skepticism seemed to more fully embrace him Thursday. The delegates in the convention hall gave him loud applause and, during some of his most pointed lines, rose to their feet. Chants of “USA! USA!” thundered through the hall and, at one point, drowned out protesters as they were escorted out.
After his 37-minute speech, Romney was joined on stage by his wife, Ann, his running mate, Paul Ryan, and his large family. For 10 minutes, balloons and confetti fell from the ceiling as “America the Beautiful” played.
Romney, who entered the convention with some of the lowest favorability ratings of any presidential nominee, used a string of surrogates – many of them from Massachusetts – to help rebrand himself in the eyes of American voters, countering criticism of his business career and skepticism over his Mormon faith.
Before he took the stage – and before television networks began broadcasting to a national audience – a film played that showcased his life, his love for family, and his business career.
The evening also provided a far more public presentation of Romney’s Mormon faith than he has previously allowed.
Ken Hutchins — former Northborough police chief, longtime friend Romney, and a Mormon lay leader — gave the invocation at the start of the night. Grant Bennett, who was an assistant to Romney when he was bishop of the Belmont Mormon community, said Romney shoveled snow for the elderly, swept floors for church dinners, and provided food for those in need.
During his speech, Romney recalled growing up in Michigan, where his friends cared more about sports teams he followed than what church he went to. When he moved to Massachusetts without a network of friends or family, he said, he discovered one with his church.
“When we were new to the community it was welcoming and as the years went by, it was a joy to help others who had just moved to town or just joined our church,” he said. “We had remarkably vibrant and diverse congregations of all walks of life and many who were new to America. We prayed together, our kids played together and we always stood ready to help each other out in different ways.”
Romney also launched into a defense of his business career, a subject that has been placed under a harsh spotlight by both his Republican rivals and Obama’s campaign. At Bain Capital, some companies grew and jobs were created while in others factories were closed and workers laid off. Romney’s campaign on Thursday unveiled a new website – SterlingBusinessCareer.com – that is aimed at responding to the criticism of his time at Bain Capital.
“When I was 37, I helped start a small company,” he said, without mentioning that the small company – Bain Capital – was part of a much larger one, Bain & Co. “My partners and I had been working for a company that was in the business of helping other businesses.”
In a joke that combined his religion and his business start, he said he considered asking his church’s pension fund to invest in Bain.
“But I didn’t,” he said. “I figured it was bad enough that I might lose my investors’ money, but I didn’t want to go to hell too.”
Romney, who has struggled to win over female voters, also addressed the gender gap. Noting that his mother ran for US Senate, he said he wished that she could have been at the convention to hear from some of the female speakers.
“When my mom ran for the Senate, my dad was there for her every step of the way,” Romney said. “I can still hear her saying in her beautiful voice, ‘Why should women have any less say than men, about the great decisions facing our nation?’ ’’
Romney also questioned whether the president has lived up to the promises he made during his candidacy.
“Hope and Change had a powerful appeal,” Romney said. “But tonight I’d ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama?”
“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 added.
Romney and his supporters did not mention the Massachusetts health care law, the signature accomplishment of his four-year term as governor, and the one that is depicted in his gubernatorial portrait hanging at the State House. Romney also did not mention immigration, or Afghanistan, during his lengthy speech.
Kerry Healey, Romney’s lieutenant governor, earlier in the evening cast him as a selfless hands-on leader who met with his economic secretary early in the morning; who served meals to homeless veterans on his first day in office; and who took control of the Big Dig when the tunnel panel collapsed.
“People in my state were losing hope — for themselves, their families and their children,” she said. “Sadly, very much like our country finds itself today.”
The night’s one off-kilter moment was an unscripted endorsement of Romney by actor Clint Eastwood. Eastwood used an empty chair to stand in for an imgainary Obama with whom he conducted a one-sided and sometime difficults to follow conversation.
The Massachusetts delegation — seated in the front of the convention hall, and joined for the evening by Senator Scott Brown – was sought out by visitors from other states, who approached for convention pins.
Brock Cordeiro, 34, of Dartmouth, Mass., was a bundle of nervous energy, sweating in a front-center section reserved for the Massachusetts delegates more than three hours before Romney’s speech. A string of Romney badges, as well as one with a picture of state delegation cochairman Ron Kaufman, hung from a lanyard around his neck.
Bill Nickerson, 58, a Bay State delegate from Taunton, used a baseball analogy to describe his happiness over the first Republican presidential nominee from Massachusetts since Calvin Coolidge in 1924.
“You wonder if you’ll ever see it in your lifetime,” said Nickerson, production manager for the Taunton municipal light plant. “It parallels with seeing the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series.”
After two straight nights of prime time television, the convention — much of it a staged event with very little suspense – seems to have given Romney an initial boost. A new Reuters-Ipsos poll released Thursday showed Romney up over Obama, 44 percent to 42 percent, after being down four points on Monday.
Romney staffers posed for a group photo on the stage at the convention hall. A large contingent of Romney’s 18 grandchildren gathered to go for a swim. Stuart Stevens, a top strategist who helped Romney craft his speech, was spotted in the Marriott hotel lobby with a thick headband after a workout.
On Friday morning, Romney and Ryan will board new campaign planes, wrapped in white and blue colors with “Believe in America” written on it. They will hold a rally in Lakeland, Fla., before departing for Richmond, Va. On Saturday, they will campaign in Cincinnati, and Jacksonville, Fla.
Romney will probably spend his time next week doing debate preparations, when much of the national focus turns to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.