TAMPA, Fla. – Mitt Romney officially gained a historic presidential nomination Tuesday night, as Republicans tried to steer national attention toward their storm-shortened convention and a tight fall race against President Barack Obama.
The former Massachusetts governor became the first Mormon to be nominated for president by either major party, a distinction that eluded his father, George Romney, an unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate in the 1960s. The milestone, assured months ago by Romney’s primary-season victories, ended a nomination journey of more than five years that initially met with his defeat in the 2008 contest.
Romney’s wife Ann and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were the prime-time attractions on a hastily reprogrammed opening night. Their appearances were designed to advance the convention’s dual purpose: giving voters a more intimate glimpse of the GOP nominee and amplifying Romney’s critique of Obama.
But it was the candidate’s wife who stole the evening. Her deeply personal remarks, woven around the story of their life and family, was also a paean to women – a voter group that has so far been resistant to Romney – as the pivotal force in everyday life.
“I love you women! And I hear your voices,” she said, during a 21-minute speech punctuated with nervous laughs. “You are the best of America.”
The personal reflections by the woman that knows him best – a down-to-earth speaker who is also, by all accounts, his most effective surrogate – were designed to counter negative voter perceptions of Romney. National polls show him with the lowest personal favorability ratings of any presidential nominee in more than 25 years.
“Let me say this to every American who is thinking about who should be our next president. No one will work harder. No one will care more. And no one will move heaven and earth like Mitt Romney to make this country a better place to live!” she said, in the night’s biggest applause line, as the arena crowd jumped to its feet.
By referring to her own health struggles, Mrs. Romney tried to knock down what she said were exaggerated perceptions of theirs as a “storybook marriage.” That, too, seemed part of the broader Romney campaign effort to provide a contrast with his image as a wealthy businessman, born into privilege, who can’t really relate to the struggles of everyday people.
“Those storybooks never seemed to have chapters called MS (multiple sclerosis) or breast cancer,” she said. “A storybook marriage? Nope, not at all. What Mitt Romney and I have is a real marriage.”
When she finished speaking, her husband emerging from backstage, through a collage of black and white blowups from the family album, to hug her and deliver two brief kisses. “You were fabulous,” he told her.
Christie, the tough-talking Jersey politician who rejected repeated urgings to enter this year’s presidential race – and whom many analysts are convinced is already maneuvering for a future national run – was chosen by Romney to deliver the evening-ending keynote address, a convention staple that typically features some of the most combative rhetoric of the entire event.
Notably for an election contest marked by the overwhelmingly negative ad campaigns waged by both sides, Christie avoided lacerating personal references to Obama. Instead, he delivered an outsider message of the nation’s leaders, prefaced by a long description of his own life and gubernatorial record.
Christie never mentioned Obama by name. His most direct reference – to “Mr. President” – came with an indictment of being poll-driven, a charge lodged against every modern chief executive.
“I’m here to tell you tonight that it is time to end this era of absentee leadership in the Oval Office and send real leaders to the White House. America needs Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and we need them right now,” Christie said to loud applause, as Romney looked on from a seat in the audience between his wife and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Romney’s formal nomination came about 2:40 p.m. Pacific, when the New Jersey delegation put his delegate tally above 1,144 delegate threshold. “Over the top” was projected on a giant video screen behind the speaker’s platform.
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