TAMPA, Fla. - Sen. Rob Portman strode onto the stage at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night and made light of how close he came to delivering a very different speech as he advocated for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
"They say I was on Gov. Romney's short list of vice presidential candidates," the Ohio Republican said. "Apparently, it wasn't short enough."
Portman was joined at the Tampa Bay Times Forum by a who's who of former White House contenders and speculated running mate shortlisters, who all voiced support for Romney.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, floated by the influential Drudge Report website as a potential VP pick, got the warmest response of the night from the crowd as it awaited vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's acceptance speech.
Delegates chanted "Con-dee, Con-dee, Con-dee" as the Birmingham native took the stage to the Lynyrd Skynyrd song "Sweet Home Alabama."
Rice praised Romney, but she never attacked President Barack Obama by name. The speech began by focusing on foreign policy, but Rice went on to broader American themes.
"That you can come from humble circumstances and do great things," she said. "That it doesn't matter where you came from, but it matters where you are going."
Rice talked about growing up in the segregated Deep South.
"A little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham," Rice said. "Her parents can't take her to a movie theater or a restaurant, but they had her absolutely convinced that even though she can't have a hamburger at the Woolworth's lunch counter, she can be president of the United States - and she becomes the secretary of State," she said to heavy applause.
Rice was a tough act to follow, but New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez delivered a well-received speech, telling her personal and political story. Martinez was also light on criticism of Obama, but there was lots of that earlier in the night.
"Barack Obama's failed us," former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said. "But look, it's understandable. A lot of people fail at their first job," zinged the former 2012 White House hopeful.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who ran against Romney in the 2008 GOP primary, knocked the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee with a harsher joke.
"Tampa has been such a wonderful and hospitable city to us. But the only hitch in an otherwise perfect week was the awful noise coming from the hotel room next door to mine," he said. "Turns out it was just Debbie Wasserman Schultz practicing her speech for the DNC in Charlotte next week. Bless her heart," he said, referring to the Florida Member.
Portman got a muted response to his speech, which focused on economic issues and hit Obama on his economic record.
"You cannot spend your way, regulate your way, tax your way or blame your way out of the economic mess we are in," Portman said. "You have to compete and win in the global economy. Gov. Romney understands this."
"America has a choice between Mitt Romney, who seeks to grow the economy, and Barack Obama who seeks to redistribute it," he said. "Which one do you think will liberate America's entrepreneurial spirit?"
"Rom-ney, Rom-ney, Rom-ney," delegates chanted.
At the Ohio delegation, there was no sense of disappointment that Portman wasn't the vice presidential nominee.
"We were all rooting for him," said Debbie Hymore-Tester, an Ohio delegate. "He would have been a great choice, but he didn't get it and we're all supporting Mitt's choice."
The theme of the night was "we can change it," though that narrative didn't resonate particularly strongly through the speeches.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 Republican nominee for president, also addressed the crowd, with a speech heavy on foreign policy and criticism of Obama.
"Our president is not being true to our values," he said.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.) also spoke.
Early in the program, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul - perhaps a future White House contender - got the crowd warmed up with a strongly delivered speech. Delegates gave him loud and sustained cheers from as he knocked the Affordable Care Act.
"I think if James Madison himself ... were here today, he would agree with me: The whole damn thing is still unconstitutional!" he said to whoops and applause.
Paul didn't stray from his libertarian roots. He made a small dig at the military-industrial complex and his party. "Republicans must acknowledge that not every dollar spent on the military is necessary or well-spent," he said. And he got loud cheers when he said, "We must never - never - trade our liberty for any fleeting promise of security."
Abby Livingston contributed to this report.