TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Republican Mitt Romney has a message for the millions of Americans who voted for Democratic President Barack Obama: It's OK to be disappointed.
Romney used the biggest moment of his political career to tell Americans about his own background and family as he appealed to the feelings of anxiety 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 said as he formally accepted the Republican presidential nomination Thursday night. "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."
In a deeply personal speech that had him visibly emotional at times, Romney sought to forge the kind of personal connection that has in some ways eluded him. While Americans trust him to handle the economy, polls show he's still not as well liked as Obama — and the speech represented an effort to broaden his appeal and connect with women and with middle-of-the road voters who will ultimately decide his fate.
"Four years from the excitement of the last election, for the first time, the majority of Americans now doubt that our children will have a better future," Romney said. "It is not what we were promised."
Obama, he said, made huge, sweeping pledges — instead of focusing on issues closer to home.
"President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet," said Romney. "My promise is to help you and your family."
In his quest to connect, he talked about his time as a young husband and father, with five rambunctious sons.
"Those weren't the easiest of days — too many long hours and weekends working, five young sons who seemed to have this need to re-enact a different world war every night," he said, his eyes visibly teary in a rare display of emotion. "If you ask Ann and I what we'd give, to break up just one more fight between the boys, or wake up in the morning and discover a pile of kids asleep in our room. Well, every mom and dad knows the answer to that."
Romney's voice cracked as he talked about his mother, Lenore, who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in Michigan, and his father George, who served as governor of Michigan and ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.
"My mom and dad were true partners, a life lesson that shaped me by everyday example," Romney said. "When my mom ran for the Senate, my dad was there for her every step of the way."
Romney also made rare direct references to his faith.
"We were Mormons and growing up in Michigan. That might have seemed unusual or out of place but I really don't remember it that way," he said. "My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to."
As the speech ended and balloons fell from the ceiling, Romney was joined onstage by running mate Paul Ryan — he said, "good job, good job," in Romney's ear — and then by his wife, children and grandchildren. The grandkids chased balloons and caught confetti, with one grandson popping a balloon underneath his foot.
The whole night was orchestrated to help Romney tell his story. Speakers and videos introduced Romney as a businessman, Olympic savior and deeply religious family man. And the testimonials were intensely personal.
One couple, Ted and Pat Oparowsky, told the crowd about their 14-year-old son David, dying of cancer, who Romney would visit in the hospital. He bought the boy fireworks, helped him write a will, and, at David's request, delivered the eulogy at his funeral. Another woman, Pam Finlayson, talked about her daughter, born three months premature — and Romney, her church pastor at the time, would come to the hospital and pray for the little girl.
"Like a lot of families in a new place with no family, we found kinship with a wide circle of friends through our church," said Romney. "We prayed together, our kids played together and we always stood ready to help each other out in different ways."
Before Romney spoke, a parade of speakers from his past took 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 were designed to showcase the man who friends say inspires fierce loyalty. Much of the list was drawn up by Romney's son Tagg.
Addressing the crowd were 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.
To prepare for the big night, Romney spent months making meticulous notes about his experiences campaigning. He 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.
As he practiced, Romney staffers were working 16-hour days in a hotel suite in Tampa to cut a video showcasing their candidate. It included several old home videos of Mitt and Ann Romney at home with their children — and even a few of just Mitt Romney when he was a kid in Michigan.
"What's your favorite type of car?" asked someone, standing outside the frame.
The answer, of course, was the car that helped his father save the automobile company he ran, American Motors.
"Rambler!" the young Romney said, laughing.
Follow Kasie Hunt on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/kasie
Follow Steve Peoples on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/kasie