Lynne Sladky, Associated Press
TAMPA, Fla. — Republican Mitt Romney is stepping up for the most important speech of his life, to an audience of millions, after a rousing warm-up from a running mate who vowed the days of dodging painful budget choices will end if voters toss President Barack Obama from office.
Having grasped the nomination on his second try, after years spent cultivating this moment, Romney will use his speech Thursday night to introduce himself to a large portion of voters and claw for advantage in a race that could scarcely be any closer.
Romney hinted at the themes in a morning fundraising appeal emailed to supporters.
"We believe in America, even though the last four years have been full of difficulties and disappointments, doubt and despair," Romney said. "We believe in America, even though President Obama's failed policies have left us with record high unemployment, lower take-home pay, and the weakest economy since the Great Depression."
There was no shortage of advice for Romney from armchair speechwriters on all sides.
Jeb Bush, the brother and son of former presidents, said it was critical for the normally reserved GOP nominee to connect with people on an emotional level — even if he's never going to be "a new-age kind of guy."
"Where it matters is connecting with other people's concerns," Bush said in a round of morning talk show interviews. Only then, he said, will voters be ready to hear the candidate's case.
Overnight convention planners transformed the convention stage, extending it about 12 feet to move the candidate closer to the audience. A glass barrier surrounded the bottom steps.
In a brief preview of Thursday night's speeches, Republican officials said members of the Mormon church, former business associates of Romney, including Staples President Tom Stemberg, and past Olympic athletes will help introduce the Republican candidate.
As part of his introduction, Romney appeared prepared to discuss his Mormon faith in more direct terms than usual, a direction signaled by running mate Paul Ryan on Wednesday night in several allusions to the duo's differing religions but "same moral creed."
The Wisconsin congressman, a deficit hawk who's become the party's darling since joining the ticket, offered a prime-time testimonial setting up Romney's turn on the stage in the Republican National Convention's finale.
The Obama campaign was quick to pick apart Ryan's address, releasing a new Web video with a fact-check of what it said were inaccuracies in the congressman's criticisms of the president, and branding the GOP ticket wrong for the middle class. In the warm-up for Romney's speech, the Democrats also released a second Web video highlighting past criticisms of Romney on his record as Massachusetts governor and his budget priorities.
After a two-day campaign tour through college towns, the president was staying out of the spotlight Thursday, ceding center stage to Romney.
But in an interview with Time magazine released Thursday, Obama said he was hopeful for a more productive second term if re-elected, because "the American people will have made a decision. And, hopefully, that will impact how Republicans think about these problems."
"My expectation is that there will be some popping of the blister after this election, because it will have been such a stark choice," Obama said.
The president added that he needs to do a better job of communicating his goals to the American people — both during the campaign and what he hopes will be a future inaugural address and more State of the Union speeches. The interview was conducted last week.
If history is a guide, viewership of Romney's speech — and Obama's address to his Democratic convention next week — will be surpassed only by the audience for their coming debates.
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