TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney on Thursday accepted the nod to lead an ever-more conservative Republican Party against a powerful but politically vulnerable incumbent, telling a national audience that this year's election comes down to jobs and President Obama's failure to create enough of them.
In an evening filled with pomp — including chants of "U-S-A" for a host of famous American Olympians, a surprise visit and endorsement by legendary actor and director Clint Eastwood, and a moving introduction by Sen. Marco Rubio, who said his first-generation American success story is the hopeful story of a nation — the GOP sent Mr. Romney forward as the man they said is the steady leader the country needs in troubled economic times.
From the stage in Tampa Mr. Romney urged voters to take a harder look at the past four years under Mr. Obama. He said he and his fellow Republicans offer voters the chance to make a dramatic change of course.
"This president can ask us to be patient. 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," Mr. Romney said. "But this president cannot tell us that you are better off today than when he took office."
He was preceded by Mr. Eastwood, who mocked Mr. Obama by holding an imaginary conversation with the president, represented by an empty chair.
"When somebody does not do the job, you've got to let him go," Mr. Eastwood said.
Next came Mr. Rubio, who told of living the American immigrant dream story as the son of a man, a refugee from Cuba, who used to tend a portable bar in banquet halls in order to support his family.
"He was grateful for the work he had, but that's not the life he wanted for us," Mr. Rubio said. "He stood behind a bar in the back of the room all those years so one day I could stand behind a podium in the front of a room."
Republicans have made the self-made American story the dominant theme of their convention, pushing back against what they say is Mr. Obama's philosophy that success comes from government.
The nomination marks the end of a six-year quest for Mr. Romney that included a failed 2008 bid and several touch-and-go moments in this year's primary season. But with the exception of supporters of Rep. Ron Paul, a rival in the primaries, Mr. Romney leads an increasingly united party.
Despite that six-year campaign, however, Mr. Romney remains an unknown to many voters, and he used his address to begin to answer those questions.
He and his wife, Ann, appeared in a video talking about their life as a young dating couple, as new parents and in their more recent life. His friends, and even his children, portrayed him as "cheap" — willing to go out of his way to save pennies on paper clips — and dedicated to details, whether in family or as governor of Massachusetts.
Mr. Eastwood, who was the only person to speak without prepared remarks, called Mr. Romney a "stellar businessman."
Mr. Romney is the first Mormon to win the nomination of either party, though that issue appears to be receding in the minds of voters. Mr. Romney minimized it in his remarks Thursday, saying his neighbors growing up in Michigan cared more about the sports teams he followed than what church he prayed at.
In his speech, he spoke of his parents, who he said were "true partners," and talked of starting the business, Bain Capital, that helped make his personal fortune — and has become the chief point of attack for Democrats.
"Despite his claims, Mitt Romney wasn't focused on job creation or growing companies. In fact, his own partners have admitted that his sole focus was on reaping profits for himself and his investors, no matter the costs to workers, companies and communities," the Obama campaign said in a statement ahead of the speech.
Mr. Romney, though, labeled Bain "a great American success story," saying it started some household-name companies — and indicating that he can do the same for the American economy as a whole.
Mr. Romney plans to detail what he calls a five-step plan for better economic times, including pushing for development of American energy, school choice, a more robust free-trade policy, federal deficit cuts and a pledge to back small businesses.
Mr. Romney also pushed back against Democrats' charges that the GOP is anti-woman, pointing to all of the women he surrounded himself by during his time in office, and to the leading women in the GOP, including a crop of young reformer governors.
While the speech contained some red meat for conservatives, including a pledge to repeal Mr. Obama's health care law and a vow to "protect the sanctity of life." And he briefly laid out a stiffer foreign policy that promised more loyalty to America's allies and "more backbone" to confront its enemies.
The remarks also seemed designed to personalize an election that Republicans say should be about whether voters are better off now than they were four years ago, when they first backed Mr. Obama.
"President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family," Mr. Romney said.
Democrats have countered by arguing that Mr. Romney's plans are built on the same philosophy the GOP pushed under President George W. Bush — something voters rejected in 2008 in electing Mr. Obama.
They also are counting on various voting blocs to find reasons to oppose Mr. Romney, and to build a winning coalition from that. The bloc would include Hispanics upset over Mr. Romney's immigration policy, gay voters angry over his stance on gay marriage, elderly voters who fear changes to Medicare, and poor and middle-class voters who believe the rich have too much of the country's wealth.
But Mr. Romney has a much more limited and pointed message, saying the economy comes down to one thing.
"What is needed in our country today is not complicated or profound," he said. "What America needs is jobs. Lots of jobs."
Mr. Obama will accept his party's nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte next week, where he will deliver his address to a stadium full of supporters, as he did in Denver in 2008.
The next major national stage for Mr. Romney, meanwhile, will be the presidential debates with Mr. Obama.
Mr. Romney leaves Tampa on Friday having survived Hurricane Isaac, which shortened the convention by a day. He will campaign Friday in Virginia and in Ohio on Saturday before returning to Florida for more campaigning — highlighting the three states deemed to be the central battleground this year.
The Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Mr. Obama leading by less than 2 percentage points in each of those three states.
Republicans got their first good look this week at the vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and Mr. Romney's wife, Ann, whose buoyant speech Tuesday night was widely praised.
The party also showcased a powerful lineup of young governors and senators who are quickly becoming the defining face of the GOP. Among them are several Hispanics and Indian-Americans, in what might be the high-water mark for diversity within the GOP's upper ranks.
Mr. Romney goes into the fall election season having bested Mr. Obama in fundraising the past several months — something that would have been unthinkable earlier this year, when analysts predicted that the incumbent would raise in excess of $1 billion for his campaign.
Now it is Mr. Obama who is pleading with supporters to open their pocketbooks to keep him competitive.
"Just last week alone, Mitt Romney's campaign and his allies outspent our side by at least three to one in North Carolina, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado, and Pennsylvania, all states we need to win," Vice President Joseph R. Biden said in a fundraising email sent just ahead of Mr. Romney's speech.
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