By KASIE HUNT, ASSOCIATED PRESS
TAMPA, Fla. — When Mitt Romney addresses the Republican convention Thursday night, he'll do it from a stage that puts him a little bit closer to the crowd inside the convention hall. His campaign hopes the evening ends with Americans feeling a little bit closer to the Republican presidential candidate, too.
On this night, they are telling Romney's story.
The entire evening – from the physical staging to the speakers' program to the planned whole-family entrance after Romney's big speech – is aimed at introducing the sometimes stiff and distant politician as a businessman, Olympic savior and deeply religious family man. His pitch to his party, as well as to the many undecided voters who are disappointed in the country's direction, will be that he's the candidate better able to shoulder the country's economic burdens.
"It will be my privilege to stand at the podium to accept the nomination," Romney wrote in an email to supporters Thursday morning. "And I will stand not just for every supporter, and not just for the Republican Party – I'll stand for every American who believes our best days are ahead."
Romney's speech is the centerpiece of the evening, and will touch on themes that are both personal and political. He'll tell stories, aides say, that haven't been part of his campaign trail pitch. He'll discuss his Mormon faith, particularly his time helping struggling families when he served as a church leader in Boston. He'll also present what advisers described as a "clear vision" of a Romney presidency.
"I commit to you that I will be the president this moment demands," Romney wrote.
To prepare for the big night, Romney has spent months making meticulous notes about his experiences campaigning. He's read numerous previous convention speeches and talked to a number of close friends and confidants about how to approach his address. He and his wife, Ann, spent part of last weekend rehearsing their speeches in an auditorium at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., near the family's lakeside summer home.
When the big moment comes, he'll be standing in the Tampa Bay Times Forum on a stage that organizers rebuilt overnight. They replaced what had been a standard stage at the front of the hall with a section that pushes the podium toward the center of the floor, so Romney will physically stand among the crowd as he speaks.
"It brings him a little bit closer," campaign manager Matt Rhoades said of the new arrangement.
Before Romney speaks, a parade of people from his past will take to the podium to walk through different phases of his life: his time running the private equity firm Bain Capital, his years running the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and his experiences as governor of Massachusetts. Referred to inside the campaign as "character witnesses," the speeches are designed to showcase the man who friends say inspires fierce loyalty. Much of the list was drawn up by Romney's son Tagg, who found acquaintances from their Mormon church in Massachusetts to talk about how his father helped them get by.
Among those set to address the crowd are Bob White, a longtime friend and colleague from Bain Capital, and Tom Stemberg, the founder of Staples, the office supply store; Olympic speed skater Derek Parra and hockey player Mike Eruzione; and former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, who is still a closer adviser.
Shortly before 10 p.m. Eastern time, organizers will run a film showcasing Romney's life. A handful of young video staffers have spent weeks working 16-hour days inside a suite at the Marriott hotel where Romney is now staying, editing the piece through the wee hours of the morning.
Then, it will be Romney's turn. When the speech is over, he'll walk back up the stage to where his entire family – wife, five sons and their wives, and 15 of his 18 grandchildren – will be waiting. Thousands of balloons nestled in netting high above the convention floor will drop, carefully positioned so that none fall on the family.
It will create the image his campaign is looking for. At that Marriott hotel the morning of the speech, Rhoades saw a copy of Thursday's Tampa Bay Times, where, on the front page, running mate Paul Ryan and his family are pictured waving after his Wednesday night address, the vice presidential nominee's arm wrapped around the waist of his wife, Janna.
Rhoades pointed at the photo.
"We need that," he said.