TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney's mission in this election: connect with Americans on a personal level.
He sought to do so Thursday by appealing to feelings of anxiety — if not disappointment — 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 will say as he formally accepts the Republican presidential nomination Thursday night, according to prepared remarks. "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."
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 is trying to strike a soft tone laced with deeply personal themes. He will draw from his Mormon faith and the influence of his mother and father — both dead for more than a decade —when he faces the Republican National Convention and a prime-time audience.
"My mom and dad gave their kids the greatest gift of all — the gift of unconditional love. They cared deeply about who we would be, and much less about what we would do," Romney will say, according to prepared remarks released by the campaign.
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 will be delivered on 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.
"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 will say.
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.
"Like a lot of families in a new place with no family, we found kinship with a wide circle of friends through our church," he will say. "We prayed together, our kids played together and we always stood ready to help each other out in different ways."
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.Comment on this story
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.
Associated Press writer Julie Mazziotta contributed to this report.