(Reuters) – Mitt Romney will urge voters to leave behind their disappointment in President Barack Obama and help him restore the promise of America, in a high-stakes convention speech on Thursday in front of the nation.
Taking center stage to accept the Republican presidential nomination, Romney will pledge to rebuild the U.S. economy and create millions of jobs after Obama’s 2008 election promises “gave way to disappointment and division.”
Often accused of being cold and formal, Romney is focusing his campaign argument on the need to jump-start the economy but the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, heard from friends and relatives who painted a picture of a humane, compassionate man.
Emotional testimonials about Romney’s work as a Mormon leader made convention delegates in the Tampa Bay Times Forum cry. One couple talked of how Romney befriended and comforted their dying teenage son. A woman, Pam Finlayson, recalled how he prayed with her in hospital when her premature baby daughter was close to death.
Romney’s acceptance speech, which launches a two-month dash to the November 6 election, will be seen later Thursday by a television audience in the tens of millions and give some voters their first extended look at the former Massachusetts governor.
It could be a defining moment for Romney, who has struggled to win over conservatives and connect with independent voters in a campaign against Obama that has been dominated by the sluggish economy and lingering high unemployment.
“What is needed in our country today is not complicated or profound. It doesn’t take a special government commission to tell us what America needs. What America needs is jobs. Lots of jobs,” Romney will say, according to excerpts of his speech released by the campaign.
Romney, who says his experience as a business executive is the cure for the ailing economy, drew a sharp comparison between the promise of Obama’s election in 2008 and the results of the last four years.
“Today the time has come for us to put the disappointments of the last four years behind us, to put aside the divisiveness and the recriminations,” he said. “Now is the time to restore the promise of America.”
Democrats alternately portray Romney, 65, as a heartless corporate raider, wealthy elitist, tax evader and policy flip-flopper who should not be trusted with the keys to the White House.
‘GREAT AMERICAN SUCCESS STORY’
To counter that image, Romney’s speech included biographical passages describing his parents and family and defending his work at Bain Capital, the private equity company that critics have accused of raiding companies and cutting jobs.
“That business we started with 10 people has now grown into a great American success story. Some of the companies we helped start are names you know,” he said, naming Staples and Sports Authority.
Romney and Obama have been running close in polls ahead of the November 6 election, but the convention so far has given Romney a boost. The latest Reuters/Ipsos online poll showed him moving into a narrow lead over Obama — 44 percent to 42 percent among likely voters. The Republican had entered the week trailing Obama by four percentage points.
Such convention-related boosts are typically short-lived, and with Obama set to headline the Democratic convention next week in Charlotte, North Carolina, the incumbent could quickly rebound.
Obama still has the advantage over Romney in likability, an important trait that may mask other problems Obama has in persuading voters to give him four more years as a weak economy continues to dog the country.
Movie star Clint Eastwood will bring a touch of Hollywood glamour to the convention, appearing as a surprise, last-minute speaker to warm up the crowd for Romney, a Republican official said. Romney’s speech will start at around 10:15 p.m. (0215 GMT).
Leaving little to chance at the carefully stage-managed event, organizers extended the podium outward and lowered it closer to the audience, seeking to create more intimacy for Romney’s address within the cavernous hockey arena.
Dropping in on the convention hall, Romney stood at the podium while workers adjusted teleprompters to his preferred height and a convention organizer took him through his paces.
“This is the biggest speech of his political career, and I have no doubt that he will deliver the best speech of his political career,” senior campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told reporters.
Romney’s nomination culminates a long journey. After failing to win the Republican race in 2008, he plotted a return to the political arena. This year he was tested time and again by a series of conservative alternatives from Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum in a long and bitter primary campaign.
He outlasted all of them, helped by huge spending on negative ads by “Super PACs” that support him, but is still struggling to win over many Republicans unsure of his conservative credentials.