TAMPA, Fla. — Republican Mitt Romney has a message for the millions of Americans who voted for Democratic President Barack Obama: It's OK to be disappointed.
The biggest moment of his political career at hand, Romney looked to appeal to the feelings of anxiety that are rippling through the electorate as the nation faces stubbornly high unemployment and fears about its future place in the world.
"Hope and change had a powerful appeal. 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?" Romney said as he formally accepted the Republican presidential nomination Thursday night. "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."
In 2008, Obama swept to victory with a message of hope and change — and as the first black person to earn the nomination of a major party, his candidacy was historic. He won in states like Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina, turning out African Americans and excited young people in record numbers.
To win, Romney needs to convince some of those voters that "hope and change" didn't really work out — and that he is the man to fix the problem.
"To the majority of Americans who now believe that the future will not be better than the past, I can guarantee you this: If Barack Obama is re-elected, you will be right," Romney said.
Aides said the speech was the most important of Romney's political career and will forever change his family's legacy. In winning his party's presidential nomination, the former Massachusetts governor has succeeded where his father failed a generation ago. But facing a two-month sprint to an Election Day matchup against President Barack Obama, Romney is now trying to broaden his appeal and connect with women and with middle-of-the road voters who will ultimately decide his fate.
To do so, he struck an often soft tone laced with deeply personal themes. He drew from Mormon faith and the influence of his mother and father — both dead for more than a decade — when he faced the Republican National Convention and a prime-time audience.
George Romney, a Michigan governor, ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 when Romney was a young man. His mother, Lenore, ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in Michigan in 1970.
"My mom and dad were true partners, a life lesson that shaped me by everyday example. When my mom ran for the Senate, my dad was there for her every step of the way," Romney said.
The remarks were delivered 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 told 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 — was 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.
The testimonials were deeply personal.
One couple, Ted and Pat Oparowsky, told the crowd about their 14-year-old son David, dying of cancer, who Romney would visit in the hospital. He bought the boy fireworks, helped him write a will, and, at David's request, delivered the eulogy at his funeral. Another woman, Pam Finlayson, talked about her daughter, born three months premature — and Romney, her church pastor at the time, would come to the hospital and pray for the little girl.
"Like a lot of families in a new place with no family, we found kinship with a wide circle of friends through our church," Romney, who met both families through his church, will say. "We prayed together, our kids played together and we always stood ready to help each other out in different ways."
That speech is the centerpiece of the evening, and touches 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 discussed his Mormon faith, particularly his time helping struggling families when he served as a church leader in Boston.
To prepare for the big night, Romney spent months making meticulous notes about his experiences campaigning. He 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.
Before Romney spoke, a parade of people from his past took 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 were designed to showcase the man who friends say inspires fierce loyalty. Much of the list was drawn up by Romney's son Tagg.
Addressing the crowd were 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.
All offered their own testimonies to Romney's character.
"Go back and look at every pursuit in Mitt's life," said White, who jokingly noted that he's sometimes called Romney's "wingman."
"Surrounding him are people who have worked with him over and over again. They trust and respect him. They want to be part of his team," White said. "I've seen Mitt Romney be that leader. He is the right man at the right time to be the next president of these great United States."