TAMPA, Fla. –- After 17 months of speeches, events, tweets and trivia, debates and political battles to unseat the incumbent president, Willard Mitt Romney stepped onto a sports arena stage here Thursday evening and uttered 4,000 words that mattered more than any in his political career to date.
In a hyperactive age that often moves too fast, for a little under an hour, everything slowed down. The nation -- partisans, press, supporters, voters -– watched, listened, and considered.
The 65-year old Massachusetts Republican accepted the nomination of his party as its nominee for president, becoming the first Mormon to ever achieve such a feat. And then he launched himself into what will now be a two-month sprint to Nov. 6.
"You need to know more about me," Romney told a crowd of 20,000 supporters and a TV audience of millions.
This was the night that the former Massachusetts governor began in earnest a quest to show the American people that he is something other than what President Barack Obama's campaign says he is: normal, not robotic; kind-hearted instead of cold; and most of all, a potential president rather than a punch line.
Romney will debate Obama three times in October, giving the nation a trio of chances to directly compare and contrast the two men. Thursday night was different. It was Romney’s audition for the minds, and the hearts, of the nation's swing voters.
But the evening suffered some hiccups when Hollywood actor Clint Eastwood opened the hour of primetime coverage with a rambling, ad-libbed speech that took up the first quarter of one of the most precious hours for Romney in the entire campaign, and appeared to blunt a momentum that had been building in the room up until that point.
For the first three hours, the entire convention night's programming had been centered around the mission of filling out the GOP nominee's portrait, of telling voters that they did not know the real Romney. Speakers, which Romney's son Tagg this week called "character witnesses," testified to their experiences with Romney in his public and personal life.
There were four speakers from Romney’s Mormon congregation in Massachusetts, two who talked about his business career -- who defended his time at private equity firm Bain Capital -- two from his time as Massachusetts governor, and several Olympians who represented Romney’s rescuing of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
The common thread throughout all the speeches was simple.
“Mitt is a good and honorable man,” said Kerry Healey, Romney’s lieutenant governor in Massachusetts.
“They say that Mitt Romney is out of touch with ordinary Americans. They just don't get it,” said Staples founder Tom Stemberg.
But the most compelling speaker was Jane Edmonds, who served under Romney in Massachusetts as secretary of workforce development. Edmonds, an African American, described herself as a "liberal Democrat."
She praised Romney for "his humanity, his grace, his kind manner," and she said that under Romney, Massachusetts' state government transitioned from one where women were underrepresented to one where the state ranked first in the percentage of "women holding top positions."
Romney trails Obama badly among women voters in key swing states. Edmonds’ testimonial is the kind of thing he could use a lot more of.
"He is the real thing: authentic," Edmonds said. "He struck me then -- and now -- as honest, transparent and inclusive."
Near the end of the 9 o'clock hour, the Romney campaign showed a compelling and moving video featuring Romney's marriage and relationship with his wife, home videos of Romney with his children, old footage of Romney's father -– former Michigan Gov. George Romney -– that popped with intensity, and a tribute to Romney's business acumen that was used by Ann Romney to argue that her husband has the grit to lead the country.
On Twitter, the response to the video was overwhelmingly positive. It would have been the perfect setup for the speech by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the young, charismatic son of Cuban immigrants, who introduced Romney. But instead, the video aired minutes before the big three TV networks started their coverage -- meaning millions of Americans did not see it -- and then Eastwood took to the stage and took the program in a jarring direction.
Reporters near Romney's box noted that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Romney's running mate, did not look pleased as Eastwood talked and talked to an empty chair that the 82-year old actor said represented Obama. The Associated Press reported that Romney aides standing backstage "winced" as Eastwood spoke.
At one point, Eastwood seemed to be joking as if the imaginary Obama was telling Romney to do something unprintable in a family publication.
"I can’t tell him to do that. I can’t tell him to do that to himself," Eastwood said.
The crowd laughed, some nervously, others genuinely.
"You’re crazy, you’re absolutely crazy. You’re getting as bad as [Vice President Joe] Biden," Eastwood told the empty chair.
Some Republicans on the floor of the convention said they loved Eastwood’s remarks.
"I think he pointed out in a very Eastwood kind of way -- very direct -- that the Obama administration has failed. He spoke the way he wanted to speak," said New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. "I think he got his message across."
After Rubio delivered a serviceable speech, Romney emerged from behind a curtain at the back of the convention floor, and began to walk toward the stage, shaking hands of delegates on the floor. He was at first not visible to most in the hall, and so the applause in the hall was muted. But even as it became clear that Romney was in the room, the GOP faithful did not rise to a roar until Romney walked up the steps to the stage.
Romney’s speech had a few high points. Most came when he made pointed attacks on Obama’s record and emphasized the need to move on from a president that many Americans still personally like.
Seeking to tap into this sentiment, Romney said that he had hoped when Obama took office he would succeed, but that Americans did not need to “accept” the ongoing economic malaise.
“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 said.
The speech was heavy on thematics, but light on policy proposals. He came back repeatedly to variations of the theme that Americans are not better off than they were when Obama was elected.
“How many days have you woken up feeling that something really special was happening in America?”
And: “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.”
And: “This president cannot tell us that you're better off today than when he took office.”
“America has been patient. Americans have supported this president in good faith. But today, the time has come to turn the page,” Romney said.
But Romney did not delve much into the biographical material that populated so much of the night before a national TV audience tuned in. So how much of that penetrated beyond the party faithful and the politically astute is hard to know.
The nation will now turn to the president for his response. And Obama will emphasize his stature as commander in chief with a speech Friday to U.S. military personnel at Fort Bliss, Texas. Vice President Joe Biden will deliver a political campaign speech at a union hall in Lordstown, an eastern Ohio village.
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a statement that after the convention, Romney was “no stronger” than he was before it. The coming days will show whether Romney campaign leaders receive the large boost in the polls that they have said they expect.
Romney and Ryan will try to seize momentum out of the convention and hit the campaign trail, holding rallies in Virginia and Florida on Friday and in Ohio on Saturday.
On Monday, Obama will hold Labor Day events in Cleveland and Toledo.
The travel schedule over the next few days says everything about the states where the election will be decided: Florida, Virginia, Ohio.
On Tuesday, the Democrats begin their three-day convention in Charlotte, N.C. In one week, on Thursday, the president will have his night in the spotlight and address his party's convention.
From there, expect a dogfight down to the wire.
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