By CHARLES BABINGTON, ASSOCIATED PRESS
TAMPA, Fla. -- Mitt Romney launched his fall campaign for the White House with a rousing, remarkably personal speech to the Republican National convention and a prime-time TV audience Thursday night, proclaiming that America needs "jobs, lots of jobs" and promising to create 12 million of them in perilous economic times.
"Now is the time to restore the promise of America," Romney declared to a nation struggling with 8.3 percent unemployment and the slowest economic recovery in decades.
Often viewed as a distant politician, he made a press-the-flesh entrance into the hall, walking slowly down one of the convention aisles and shaking hands with dozens of delegates. The hall erupted in cheers when he reached the stage and he waved to his shouting, chanting supporters before beginning to speak.
"I accept your nomination for president," he said, to a roar of approval. Then he pivoted into personal details of family life, recounting his youth as a Mormon, the son of parents devoted to one another, and a married man with five rambunctious sons.
He choked up at least twice, including when he recalled how he and wife Ann would awake to find "a pile of kids asleep in our room."
Romney aimed numerous jabs at President Barack Obama, his Democratic quarry in a close and uncertain race for the White House, and drew cheers when he vowed to repeal Obama's signature health care law.
"This president can tell us it was someone else's fault. This president can tell us that the next four years he'll get it right. But this president cannot tell us that you are better off today than when he took office," Romney declared.
Clint Eastwood, legendary Hollywood tough guy, put the case for ousting Obama plainly moments before Romney made his entrance. "When somebody does not do the job, you've got to let `em go," he said to the cheers of thousands in the packed convention hall.
Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and the Democrats counter with their own convention beginning next Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C.
His own speech over, Romney was joined by running mate Paul Ryan, then their wives, and finally a stage full of their children and grandchildren. Confetti and thousands of red, white and blue balloons floated down from the rafters. They joined popular gospel singer BeBe Winans on "America the Beautiful."
Beyond the heartfelt personal testimonials and political hoopla, the evening marked one of a very few opportunities any presidential challenger is granted to appeal to millions of voters in a single night.
The two-month campaign to come includes other big moments - principally a series of one-on-one debates with Democrat Obama - in a race for the White House that has been close for months. In excess of $500 million has been spent on campaign television commercials so far, almost all of it in the battleground states of Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, New Hampshire, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada.
Romney holds a fundraising advantage over Obama, and his high command hopes to expand the electoral map soon if post-convention polls in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and perhaps elsewhere indicate it's worth the investment.
Romney was often almost gentle in his criticism of Obama.
"I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed," he said. "But his promises gave way to disappointment and division."
"This isn't something we have to accept," he said, appealing to millions of voters who say they are disappointed in the president yet haven't yet decided to cast their votes for his Republican challenger.
"Now is the moment when we can stand up and say, `I'm an American. I make my destiny. And we deserve better! My children deserve better! My family deserves better! My country deserves better!"
Romney's remarks came on a night when other speakers filled out a week-long portrait of the GOP nominee as a man of family and faith, savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics, savvy and successful in business, yet careful with a buck. A portion of the convention stage was rebuilt overnight so he would appear surrounded by delegates rather than speaking from a distance, an attempt to soften his image as a sometimes-stiff and distant candidate.
"He shoveled snow and raked leaves for the elderly. He took down tables and swept floors at church dinners," said Grant Bennett, describing Romney's volunteer work as an unpaid lay clergy leader in the Mormon church.
Following him to the podium, Ted and Pat Oparowski tenderly recalled how Romney befriended their 14-year-old son David as he was dying of cancer. "We will be ever grateful to Mitt for his love and concern," she said simply.
Shouts of "USA, USA" echoed in the convention hall as several Olympic medal winners came on stage, a reminder of Romney stepping in to help rescue the faltering 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
As for Obama, Romney said, "Many Americans have given up on this president, but they haven't ever thought about giving up. Not on themselves, Not on each other. And not on America."
Romney did not mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and made only the most fleeting references to social issues. He said, "As president, I will protect the sanctity of life. I will honor the institution of marriage. And I will guarantee America's first liberty: the freedom of religion."
The economy is issue No. 1 in the race for the White House, and Romney presented his credentials as the man better equipped than the president to help create jobs. Speaker after speaker testified to the help their received from Bain Capital, the private equity firm that he created - and that Democrats argue often took over companies, loaded them down with debt and then walked away with huge fees as bankruptcy approached.
"When I told him about Staples, he really got excited at the idea of saving a few cents on paper clips," businessman Tom Stemberg said of the office supply store chain he founded with backing from Bain.
Romney' offered no new information on what has so far been a short-on-details pledge to reduce federal deficits and create 12 million jobs in a country where unemployment stands at 8.3 percent.
Still, he said, "Let me make this very clear, unlike President Obama, I will not raise taxes on the middle class" - a rejoinder to one of the Democrats' most frequent accusation
Romney would have to nearly double the current, anemic pace of job growth to achieve 12 million jobs over four years. That's conceivable in a healthy economy. Moody's Analytics, a financial research operation, expects nearly that many jobs to return in four years no matter who occupies the White House, absent further economic setbacks.
Romney's steps for achieving the employment growth include deficit cuts that he has not spelled out and a march toward energy independence that past presidents have promised but never delivered.
He has called for extension of tax cuts due to expire at all income levels at the end of the year, and an additional 20 percent across the board cut in rates. But he has yet to sketch which tax breaks he will eliminate or cut to prevent deficits from rising.
Nor has he been forthcoming about where to make the trillions in spending cuts needed to redeem his pledge of major deficit reduction, or about his promise to rein in Medicare or other government benefit programs before they go broke.
Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has called for remaking Medicare into a program in which the government would send seniors checks to be used to purchase health care insurance.
Under the current approach, beneficiaries pay premiums to the government, which then pays a part of all of their medical bills, and Democrats say the GOP alternative would expose seniors to ever-rising out-of-pocket costs.
Obama's surrogates missed no opportunity to criticize Romney, the convention proceedings or Ryan's own acceptance speech.
"He lied about Medicare. He lied about the Recovery Act," Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, emailed Democratic donors in a plea for cash.
"He lied about the deficit and debt. He even dishonestly attacked Barack Obama for the closing of a GM plant in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin - a plant that closed in December 2008 under George W. Bush."
The evening sealed a triumph more than five years in the making for Romney. He ran unsuccessfully for the nomination in 2008 after a single term as a moderate Republican governor of a liberal Democratic state.
This year, as then, he was assailed as a convert to conservatism, and a questionable one at that, as Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and other rivals battled him for the nomination. With a superior organization and an outside group that spent millions criticizing his foes, Romney eventually emerged as the nominee in early spring.
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt, Steve Peoples, Philip Elliott, Beth Fouhy, Thomas Beaumont and Julie Mazziotta in Tampa and Jennifer Agiesta and Cal Woodward in Washington contributed
Fresh from the Republican National Convention, Romney boarded his new campaign plane – emblazoned with the slogan "Believe in America" – to join Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on his scheduled tour of storm damage in Lafitte, outside New Orleans. Ryan took off separately to tend to politics in battleground Virginia.
At a farewell rally as he left Tampa, Romney made no mention of the storm and kept his focus squarely on the economy. The GOP nominee said he and Ryan "understand how the economy works, we understand how Washington works. We will reach across the aisle and find good people who like us, want to make sure this country deals with its challenges. We'll get America on track again."
Ryan, who hopscotched from Florida to Virginia, told supporters: "Coming out of Tampa, we have given our fellow countrymen a very clear choice." He offered Romney as "a man for the moment" and cast the election as a choice between a failed presidency and a stagnant economy, and fresh leadership that will turn the economy around. Ryan also asked for prayers for those affected the hurricane and by an earthquake in the Philippines.
Hurricane Isaac, since downgraded to a tropical storm, left a wake of misery in Louisiana, with dozens of neighborhoods under deep flood waters and more than 800,000 people without power. While New Orleans was spared major damage, the storm walloped surrounding suburbs, topping smaller levees with days of rain and forcing more than 4,000 from their homes.
Romney heads into the campaign's final 67 days with his primary focus on jobs and the economy, and depicting Obama as a well-meaning but inept man who must be replaced.
"America has been patient," Romney said in his speech to the nation Thursday night. "Americans have supported this president in good faith. But today, the time has come to turn the page."
Among those who chose not to turn in: Obama. "He tends to consume his news the old-fashioned way, via print," said spokesman Jay Carney.
His wife, Michelle, said in an email appeal that she's "learned to shrug off what Barack's opponents say about him." But she told supporters "not everyone knows him as you and I do," and urged them to contribute money to help get the Democratic message out.
Ann Romney, for her part, made the rounds of Friday morning talk shows to offer her husband as the solution to the country's economic problems, and predicted that argument would hold sway with women who haven't voted Republican in the past.
Ann Romney said women tell her: "It's time for the grown-up to come, the man that's going to take this very seriously and the future of our children very, very seriously. I very much believe this is going to be an economic election, and I think a lot of women may be voting this cycle around in a different way than they usually are, and that is thinking about the economy."
Democrats gather in Charlotte, N.C., next week for Obama's convention. They hope the convention will, at a minimum, neutralize any GOP bounce out of Tampa. Obama narrowly won North Carolina in 2008 and scheduled his 2012 convention there in hopes of repeating the unexpected feat. Romney's path to victory is severely complicated unless he puts the state back in the GOP column.
In the lead-up to his convention, Obama was campaigning this weekend in Iowa and Colorado, before surveying storm damage in Louisiana on Monday. He canceled a scheduled stop in Cleveland to go to the Gulf.
Carney announced the trip to the Gulf from Air Force One as Obama flew to Texas to speak to U.S. service members and their families. Carney said the president's visit to Fort Bliss would highlight administration efforts to support U.S. service members and their families, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those efforts include attempts to combat what Carney called "unseen wounds" of the wars, including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Obama's team is intent on flexing the powers of the presidency in pursuit of re-election.
Where Romney gave a shout-out to members of the military during his rally, Obama was able to sign an executive order to improve access to mental health services for veterans, service members and military families.
Vice President Joe Biden spent Friday in the political battleground of Ohio, visiting with UAW workers in Lordstown. He reminded them that Romney opposed the administration's bailout of the auto industry, which didn't come up at the GOP convention.
"What they didn't say is because of the auto rescue, there are 4,500 of you working here today," Biden said. "And GM is adding two shifts."
Romney will be in Ohio on Saturday before taking a couple of days to rest during the Democratic convention.
Obama's campaign issued a morning-after critique of Romney's convention speech that faulted the GOP nominee for skipping over failings in his record on job-creation as Massachusetts governor and for not being up-front with voters about details of his economic plans that Obama says would reduce taxes for the wealthy and increase burdens on the middle class.
"Thursday was Mitt Romney's big night to tell America his plans for moving forward, yet he chose not to," the Obama campaign said in a web video.
Polls suggest a to-the-wire campaign finish. The two men will spend the next 10 weeks in a handful of competitive states, none more important than Florida and Ohio, and meet in October for one-on-one debates where the stakes could hardly be any higher.
Babington reported from Tampa. Associated Press writers Steve Peoples, Philip Elliott, Beth Fouhy, Thomas Beaumont and Julie Mazziotta in Tampa, Fla., and Jennifer Agiesta and Cal Woodward in Washington contributed to this report.