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Romney fires up his party

TAMPA

He comforted dying children. He saved struggling businesses. He stood by his wife as she suffered from multiple sclerosis.

Willard Mitt Romney, 65, used the climactic moment of the Republican National Convention Thursday night at the Tampa Bay Times Forum to present a fuller self-portrait while trying to harness disappointment with President Barack Obama.

It has been 5½ years since Romney officially began running for president, but in many respects, it was the first time he introduced himself to Americans, giving a well-received speech after a three-day convention designed to rally the Republican base.

The night was full of humanizing moments but was punctuated by a rambling, unusual bit by Clint Eastwood. The actor mockingly spoke to an empty chair (representing Obama) and ridiculed him for failed promises.

"I'm not going to shut up," Eastwood said to his fictional guest. "It's my turn." He continued the bit and had the audience finish his punch line, "Go ahead ..." They shouted, "MAKE MY DAY."

Romney went after Obama as well but in both tone and substance, he seemed to be offering another version of hope and change. He insisted he had wanted Obama to succeed "because I want America to succeed," but, he said, Obama had failed and did not deserve a second term.

"So here we stand," he said. "Americans have a choice. A decision."

Romney said he would begin his presidency with a jobs tour, while "President Obama began with an apology tour." He also accused Obama of being soft with foreign leaders.

" '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."

Romney, whose voice cracked at times while professing love for his wife of 43 years, critically needed to make a personal connection and counter a detached image he has presented on the campaign trail, adding to the likability and empathy gap he suffers against Obama.

Some of the most touching moments came from others, including the parents of a dying boy whom Romney treated to fireworks and helped write a will so he could give prized possessions to friends. As TV cameras swept the crowd, eyes were filled with tears.

It was a night that featured home videos of Romney's kids splashing in the water, stories of charity, his rise in business and his tenure as governor of Massachusetts.

Romney captured the nomination after a bitter primary that forced him to adopt hard-line positions on immigration and social issues and saw him attacked by fellow Republicans as an untrustworthy moderate and greedy businessman.

"We've been totally energized and we're united," said Carol Houtler, a delegate from Dayton, Ohio. "That's what conventions are for. It makes you really want to go home and get to work."

Romney mixed biography with an optimistic message, urging Americans to coalesce behind him as he promised to create 12 million jobs and tackle the national debt and strengthen entitlement programs.

"I am running for president to help create a better future. A future where everyone who wants a job can find one. Where no senior fears for the security of their retirement. An America where every parent knows that their child will get an education that leads them to a good job and a bright horizon."

The horizon motif, borrowing from Ronald Reagan, coursed through the final night of speeches at the convention. After two days of pummeling Obama, Republicans sought to strike a hopeful chord.

"We can restore America's greatness," said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Romney, who has been criticized for not providing more details on his plans to fix the country, said the answers were "not complicated or profound" and distilled it to a single word: jobs. He sketched the broadest outlines of a five-point plan to create jobs.

He said he would expand more oil, coal, gas and nuclear energy; allow parents to choose which schools their children attend; vowed to crack down on trade violations by other countries; cut the deficit to "ensure every entrepreneur and job creator that their investments will not vanish as have those in Greece"; and reduce taxes on businesses, rein in regulations and repeal the health care law.

The speech was designed to address some of Romney's deficiencies.

He sought to connect with women, a demographic he is struggling with, mentioning how his mother once ran for U.S. Senate and lamenting that she was not alive to hear some of the female leaders who have been featured at the three-day convention, including his lieutenant governor in Massachusetts, Kerry Healey.

He tried to cast a positive light on his business career. Democrats have used Romney's long career in venture capitalism to cast him as a corporate raider who killed jobs to squeeze profits from companies. But Romney said Bain Capital had started with 10 people and grown "into a great American success story," noting turnarounds of Staples, the Sports Authority and Steel Dynamics.

He skipped over companies such as Dade Behring, a medical supply company that Bain owned and in 1997 closed its Miami operations costing 850 jobs and a $30 million payroll in the community.

Romney's biggest objective was to broaden his image beyond the Mr. Fix It businessman. He has resisted doing so — just as he buried any references to his faith — out of fear of calling attention to Bain. But Thursday he used it to show himself as a capable executive but also one who used his wealth to do charitable deeds.

The question left to answer will be whether the Romney makeover will work. Much of the testimonials from his friends and business associates came earlier in the night when networks were not tuned in.

Jeff Stinson, 25, a Republican consultant from Boston who came as a guest of the Massachusetts delegation, said the convention succeeded in energizing Republicans. But he said it had not likely won over many independent voters or moderate Democrats.

Without those groups, he said, Romney can't win.

Russ Hilk, a 34-year-old delegate from Minnesota and a Ron Paul supporter, said most of the speakers did not do a great job selling Romney. "I feel like the speeches were more about the people giving them than the candidate."

That, he said, added to the pressure for Romney to do the job himself.

"If I am elected president of these United States, I will work with all my energy and soul to restore that America, to lift our eyes to a better future," Romney concluded his pitch.

"That future is our destiny. That future is out there. It is waiting for us. Our children deserve it, our nation depends upon it, the peace and freedom of the world require it. And with your help we will deliver it. Let us begin that future together tonight."

Romney, dressed in a dark suit and red tie, gave a commanding address, and at the end, his running mate, Paul Ryan joined him on the stage as red white and blue balloons and confetti fell. But the celebratory finale did not completely erase a flat feeling that hovered over the convention, leaving open the question of whether Romney had accomplished what he needed to do.

Times staff writers Jodie Tillman and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Romney fires up his party 08/31/12 [Last modified: Friday, August 31, 2012 2:43pm]

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