Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
Former Massachusetts governor and one-time presidential candidate Mitt Romney acknowledges the crowd as he prepares to address the Republican National Convention on Wednesday.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Mitt Romney rallied a raucous Republican National Convention audience Wednesday night behind John McCain, the man he once hoped to defeat as the party's presidential nominee.

Romney, who gave up his White House bid and was passed over for the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket, urged delegates to "throw out the big government liberals and elect John McCain."

While he had attacked McCain on the campaign trail as a Washington insider, Romney drew big cheers from the crowd with a rhetoric-heavy speech comparing the candidate to beloved Republican icon, Ronald Reagan.

McCain will take the nation on the same course that was championed by Reagan, Romney said.

He called on Washington to rein in spending, lower taxes and "to take a weed-whacker to excessive regulation and mandates, to put a stop to tort windfalls, and to stand up to the tyrannosaurus appetite of government unions."

Although Romney insists he has no plans to run again, he is widely seen as a likely candidate in 2012. After dropping out of the presidential race in February, he endorsed McCain and has raised millions of dollars for GOP candidates around the country.

He generated plenty of excitement Wednesday, getting the crowd to yell "liberal" about Congress and other Washington institutions. There were loud shrieks when Romney said he and his wife, Ann, loved and respected them for their values. And there were even repeated chants from the crowd of "USA."

Seeing Romney behind the Xcel Energy Center podium was bittersweet for Utah delegates who had hoped to see a "favorite son," on this November's ballot. Romney Utah connections run deep. A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Romney is largely credited with leading Salt Lake's 2002 Winter Olympics out of a bribery scandal. Although he lives in Massachusetts, where he served one term as a governor and amassed a personal fortune as a venture capitalist in Boston, Romney maintains a winter vacation home in Deer Valley. In Feb. 5th's Republican primary, Utahns gave him an overwhelming 90 percent of the vote. They also contributed an unprecedented $6 million in campaign contributions toward his presidential run.

"It's a little disappointing to see your guy give a speech in support of the guy you wanted to see come in second," said Utah delegate Alan Dayton, a lobbyist for Intermountain Health Care. He said he expects to see Romney run again in four years. "I'm keeping the watch," Dayton said, pointing to his Romney wristwatch.

Another Utah delegate, Davis County GOP Chairman Ben Horsley, said he "snuck up to the front" to see Romney speak. "It was exciting." Seeing a fellow Mormon on the ticket "would have been great," he said.

Utah state Senate assistant majority whip Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, said he would have liked to have seen Romney "accepting the nomination. But I'm enthused about John McCain, and especially his pick for vice president" — conservative Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Romney's evening speaking spot was not confirmed until Wednesday, because of changes made to the convention program in the wake of Hurricane Gustav. The convention, which ends today, started on a somber note but has now refocused squarely on its partisan purpose.


E-mail: lisa@desnews.com