TAMPA, Fla. - Republican Mitt Romney, in the most important speech in his presidential campaign, told a television audience of millions that Barack Obama had failed to deliver on his soaring promises of hope and change and that it is time for new leadership during tough times in America.
Romney accepted the Republican presidential nomination late Thursday, casting himself as the best hope to lift the struggling U.S. economy and "restore the promise of America." He pledged to make the U.S. energy independent, cut the deficit, negotiate new free trade agreements and create 12 million jobs.
"President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans. And to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family," he said.
His speech marked the climax of the three-day Republican National Convention and a milestone in his long, often-rocky quest for the presidency. With his opening words, he claimed the honour he was denied when John McCain won the nomination four years ago. This year, he had to fend off a series of Republican challengers, questions about his shifting positions and mutterings about his Mormon religion.
The ultimate prize, the White House, will be determined in a November vote. Polls show Romney and Obama in a dead heat with the economy the biggest issue in the campaign. The United States is struggling with 8.3 per cent unemployment and the slowest economic recovery in decades.
Romney noted excitement over Obama's promises from his campaign four years ago "gave way to disappointment and division."
"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," he said.
The speech was seen as a national introduction of sorts for the 65-year-old Romney — an oddity considering his years in the public eye. Yet for all his time as candidate, Massachusetts governor and head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, he remains something of an enigma. He is often seen — unfairly, friends say — as stiff and distant.
While polls show voters view Romney, a multimillionaire former businessman, as more capable of fixing the economy, they find Obama to be more honest and likable.
The campaign hopes the speech and the convention in general will change perceptions. For three days, speakers have portrayed the candidate as a man of family and faith, savvy and successful in business, saviour of the 2002 Winter Olympics, yet careful with spending. A portion of the convention stage was rebuilt overnight so he would appear surrounded by delegates rather than speaking from a distance, an attempt to soften his image.
Romney offered details of his family life, recounting his youth as a Mormon, the son of parents devoted to one another, then a married man with five rambunctious sons.
He choked up at least twice, including when he recalled how he and wife Ann would awake to find "a pile of kids asleep in our room."
Before Romney's speech, church members warmly presented Romney as a compassionate man who lives his Mormon faith of service. Grant Bennett described Romney's volunteer work shovelling snow and raking leaves for the elderly. A couple, Ted and Pat Oparowski, recalled how Romney befriended their 14-year-old son David as he was dying of cancer. "We will be ever grateful to Mitt for his love and concern," she said. Romney is the first Mormon nominee of a major U.S. political party.
Republicans also turned to some Hollywood firepower, with Clint Eastwood, the legendary tough guy, taking a turn at the podium. "When somebody does not do the job you've got to let 'em go," he said to a roaring audience.
Romney made a press-the-flesh entrance into the hall, walking slowly down one of the convention hall aisles and shaking hands with dozens of delegates. The hall erupted in cheers when he reached the stage and waved to his cheering, chanting supporters before beginning to speak.
Veering from the speech's focus on domestic affairs, Romney said Obama failed to slow Iran's nuclear threat, abandoned Poland by changing missile defence plans and has "thrown allies like Israel under the bus." He said Obama is "eager to give Russia's President (Vladimir) Putin the flexibility he desires after the election."
"Under my administration, our friends will see more loyalty and Mr. Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone," he said.
Romney's speech was the traditional convention finale, and thousands of red, white and blue balloons were released when he completed his remarks.
Cheering him on were the thousands of Republican delegates who overwhelmingly approved his nomination in a rollcall vote Tuesday. The party has rallied behind Romney despite longstanding concerns about his shifting political positions and doubts about whether he was a true conservative. Romney's religion also unsettled some evangelicals who do not see Mormonism as a true Christian faith.
But the Republican desire to evict Obama from the White House overwhelms any trepidation about Romney. Moreover, the party was thrilled when Romney picked congressman Paul Ryan, the architect of a plan to slash government spending, as his vice-presidential running mate. Ryan delivered a rousing acceptance speech Wednesday.
The two-month campaign to come includes other big moments — principally a series of one-on-one debates with Obama. More than $500 million has been spent on campaign television commercials so far. Romney has raised more than Obama.
Democrats looked to use Ryan's speech to fundraising advantage, highlighting factual errors. In a letter sent to potential donors, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said the Ryan speech "represents a huge bet by the Romney campaign — they've decided that facts, truth and reality will not be a brake on their campaign message."
The president himself was staying out of the spotlight Thursday. But in an interview with Time magazine released Thursday, Obama said he was hopeful for a more productive second term if re-elected, because "the American people will have made a decision. And, hopefully, that will impact how Republicans think about these problems."
Associated Press writers David Espo, Robert Furlow, Kasie Hunt, Steve Peoples, Philip Elliott, Beth Fouhy, Thomas Beaumont and Julie Mazziotta in Tampa and Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this story.