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TAMPA, Fla. - Mitt Romney made the case Thursday night for why Republicans long ready to oust the president should be equally excited to vote for the former Massachusetts governor.
In officially accepting the GOP presidential nomination, Romney's opening argument was the culmination of a three-day introduction at the Republican National Convention and the starting pistol for a two-month sprint to November.
Romney needs an active base of supporters who will not only flood the voting booths but also volunteer to knock on doors, make phone calls and register voters to help him defeat President Barack Obama. To that end, Romney helped voters get to know him better on a personal level and get a clearer picture of what kind of alternative to Obama he offers.
"So here we stand," Romney said in his acceptance speech. "Americans have a choice, a decision. To make that choice you need to know more about me and where I'd lead your country."
The race is dead even for now, despite an economy still slow to recover from recession. Neither candidate led by more than a point or two in all but one poll released in the past three weeks.
But in a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted last week, 61 percent of registered voters said Obama seemed like the more friendly and likeable person.
Along with his former lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, Romney was preceded on the stage by a couple of old friends and fellow congregation members from Massachusetts. The goal of their message was twofold: Help erase any lingering concerns about Romney's leadership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and humanize a nominee known for his corporate background.
A biographical video of old Romney family photos and home videos, narrated by Romney and his wife, Ann, was shown before the last few speeches of the night. It sought to further ingrain a connection with voters, but it also highlighted Romney's business background - leading to his other and perhaps most important focus for the night.
With unemployment at 8.3 percent, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in an interview earlier in the day that it was clear what message Romney had to get across Thursday night for his speech to be a success.
"That he knows how to lead the country out of the economic mess and he has a plan for it," Alexander said. "If he can show he can do that, I think the country will welcome it, and I think it will help him get elected."
Just after the video played, the night got slightly off-message and a little odd when actor Clint Eastwood stepped onstage as a surprise speaker. He spoke to an empty chair, pretending Obama was sitting in it, and rambled some. But Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) spoke next and brought the night back on the rails.
"Mitt Romney believes that if we succeed in changing the direction of our country, our children and grandchildren will be the most prosperous generation ever, and their achievements will astonish the world," Rubio said in a rousing speech to introduce the nominee.
Romney then entered the arena floor from behind the crowd, shaking hands as he made his way to the stage amid roaring delegates on their feet. He highlighted his family and business experience, then pounded the president, saying Obama did not follow through on promises and left Americans worse off than they were four years ago.
"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 said. "I am running for president to help create a better future. A future where everyone who wants a job can find one. Where no senior fears for the security of their retirement. An America where every parent knows that their child will get an education that leads them to a good job and a bright horizon."
Romney then went through a five-step plan to create 12 million jobs: taking advantage of the country's natural energy resources, providing workers with new skills and offering school choice, forging new trade agreements, cutting the deficit, steering the government toward a balanced budget, cutting taxes and simplifying regulations for small businesses.
"President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet," Romney said. "My promise is to help you and your family."
Vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan walked onstage after Romney concluded, and their families joined them as balloons and confetti dropped on an energized convention floor.
Seated in the front row of the Arizona delegation, Rep. Jeff Flake, a Senate candidate, told Roll Call that the speech was "awesome."
"I thought it would be tough to top Paul Ryan's speech, but he did it. He really did," Flake said.
In town for counterprogramming by Democrats, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) was asked in an interview Wednesday what Obama's best argument for re-election is amid high unemployment. Durbin noted unemployment isn't high in every state, and with the Electoral College, it's more telling to look at how well battleground states are doing.
"Our point, and we continue to return to it, is: And their alternative is what?" Durbin said.
That's the question Republicans hoped to answer this week. Democrats are now at bat as the focus turns to Charlotte, N.C., where the party will look to sell Obama's re-election and rally the Democratic base.
Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.