TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Mitt Romney launched a full-speed fall campaign for the White House on Thursday with a prime-time speech to a unified Republican convention and a nation divided politically as it struggles in a weak economy.
Though Romney has been pursuing the presidency for the better part of a decade, his acceptance speech was an important chance to introduce himself and forge a connection with millions of Americans who feel they need to know him better.
"We believe in America, even though the last four years have been full of difficulties and disappointments, doubt and despair," the former Massachusetts governor wrote supporters in an online fundraising appeal a few hours before he spoke.
Romney's speech was the traditional convention finale, and thousands of red, white and blue balloons nestled in netting high above the floor, ready to be released on cue once the Republican candidate completed his remarks.
But more than the hoopla, the evening marked one of a very few opportunities any presidential challenger is granted to appeal to millions of voters in a single night.
The two-month campaign to come includes other big moments — principally a series of one-on-one debates with Democrat Obama — in a race for the White House that has been close for months. In excess of $500 million has been spent on campaign television commercials so far, almost all of it in the battleground states of Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, New Hampshire, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada.
Romney holds a fundraising advantage over Obama, and his high command hopes to expand the electoral map soon if post-convention polls in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and perhaps elsewhere indicate it's worth the investment.
Romney's aides scripted a Thursday night program that included a video tribute to Ronald Reagan, the two-term president revered still by conservatives. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also had his moment on the podium, and Newt and Callista Gingrich shared one of their own.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was tapped to introduce Romney.
Romney aides said the convention's final night was designed to fill out a portrait of the GOP nominee as a successful businessman, last-minute savior for a troubled 2002 Olympics and a man of family and faith. A portion of the convention podium was rebuilt overnight so he would appear surrounded by delegates rather than speaking from a distance, an attempt to soften his image as a stiff and distant candidate.
But these aides did not say whether he would offer any new information on what has so far been a short-on-details pledge to reduce federal deficits and create 12 million jobs in a country where unemployment stands at 8.3 percent.
Romney has called for extension of tax cuts due to expire at all income levels at the end of the year, and has proposed an additional 20 percent cut in tax rates across the board. But he has yet to sketch out the retrenchment in tax breaks that he promises to prevent deficits from rising.
Nor has he been forthcoming about the trillions in spending cuts that would be needed to redeem his pledge of major deficit reduction, or about his promise to rein in Medicare or other government benefit programs before they go broke.
His vice presidential running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has called for remaking Medicare into a program in which the government would send seniors checks to be used to purchase health care insurance.
Under the current approach, beneficiaries pay premiums to the government, which then pays a part of all of their medical bills, and Democrats say the GOP alternative would expose seniors to ever-rising out-of-pocket costs.
Romney said in his fundraising email, as he often does in his speeches, "We believe in America, even though President Barack Obama's failed policies have left us with record high unemployment, lower take-home pay and the weakest economy since the great Depression."
Obama's surrogates missed no opportunity to criticize Romney, the convention proceedings or Ryan's own acceptance speech.
"He lied about Medicare. He lied about the Recovery Act," Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, emailed Democratic donors in a plea for cash.
"He lied about the deficit and debt. He even dishonestly attacked Barack Obama for the closing of a GM plant in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin — a plant that closed in December 2008 under George W. Bush."
For Romney, 65 and the first Mormon to become a major party presidential nominee, the evening sealed a triumph more than five years in the making. He ran unsuccessfully for the nomination in 2008 after a single term as a moderate Republican governor of a liberal Democratic state.
This year, as then, he was assailed as a convert to conservatism, and a questionable one at that, as Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and other rivals battled him for the nomination. With a superior organization and an outside group that spent millions criticizing his foes, Romney eventually emerged as the nominee in early spring.
His selection of Ryan, a young lawmaker admired by fellow conservatives for his understanding of the federal budget, reinforced Romney's appeal to the right.
The economy alone makes the race a close one, and polling makes clear that Romney enters the fall campaign with strengths and weaknesses.
In the most recent Associated Press-GfK poll, conducted Aug. 16-20, some 48 percent of registered voters said Romney would do a better job handling the economy, while 44 percent chose Obama. The Republican was also favored narrowly on job creation and held a 10-point advantage on the issue of reducing federal budget deficits.
Yet by 51-36, registered voters said Obama better understands the problems of people like them, that the president is a stronger leader and also a more honest and trustworthy candidate.
Polls also show Romney trails Obama among female voters and Hispanics, and the convention was scripted from beginning to end to try and cut into the GOP ticket's disadvantages in those areas.
The first night of the GOP convention drew an estimated 22.3 million TV viewers, the vast majority over 55. The Nielsen ratings company said that figure was down from the 23.1 million who watched the first full night of the 2008 convention, which nominated John McCain. Nielsen said just 1.5 million of those who watched Tuesday's convention session were in the 18-34 age group.
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt, Steve Peoples, Philip Elliott, Beth Fouhy, Thomas Beaumont and Julie Mazziotta in Tampa and Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this story.