TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Mitt Romney launched his fall campaign for the White House with a rousing, remarkably personal speech to the Republican National convention and a prime-time TV audience Thursday night, proclaiming that America needs "jobs, lots of jobs" and promising to create 12 million of them in perilous economic times.
"Now is the time to restore the promise of America," Romney declared to a nation struggling with 8.3 percent unemployment and the slowest economic recovery in decades.
Often viewed as a distant politician, he made a press-the-flesh entrance into the hall, walking slowly down one of the convention aisles and shaking hands with dozens of delegates. The hall erupted in cheers when he reached the stage and he waved to his shouting, chanting supporters before beginning to speak.
"I accept your nomination for president," he said, to a roar of approval. Then he pivoted into personal details of family life, recounting his youth as a Mormon, the son of parents devoted to one another, and 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."
Romney aimed numerous jabs at President Barack Obama, his Democratic quarry in a close and uncertain race for the White House, and drew cheers when he vowed to repeal Obama's signature health care law.
"This president can tell us it was someone else's fault. This president can tell us that the next four years he'll get it right. But this president cannot tell us that you are better off today than when he took office," Romney declared.
Clint Eastwood, legendary Hollywood tough guy, put the case for ousting Obama plainly moments before Romney made his entrance. "When somebody does not do the job, you've got to let 'em go," he said to the cheers of thousands in the packed convention hall.
Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and the Democrats counter with their own convention beginning next Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C.
His own speech over, Romney was joined by running mate Paul Ryan, then their wives, and finally a stage full of their children and grandchildren. Confetti and thousands of red, white and blue balloons floated down from the rafters. They joined popular gospel singer BeBe Winans on "America the Beautiful."
Beyond the heartfelt personal testimonials and political 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 was often almost gentle in his criticism of Obama.
"I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed," he said. "But his promises gave way to disappointment and division."
"This isn't something we have to accept," he said, appealing to millions of voters who say they are disappointed in the president yet haven't yet decided to cast their votes for his Republican challenger.
"Now is the moment when we can stand up and say, 'I'm an American. I make my destiny. And we deserve better! My children deserve better! My family deserves better! My country deserves better!"
Romney's remarks came on a night when other speakers filled out a week-long portrait of the GOP nominee as a man of family and faith, savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics, savvy and successful in business, yet careful with a buck. 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 as a sometimes-stiff and distant candidate.
"He shoveled snow and raked leaves for the elderly. He took down tables and swept floors at church dinners," said Grant Bennett, describing Romney's volunteer work as an unpaid lay clergy leader in the Mormon church.
Following him to the podium, Ted and Pat Oparowski tenderly 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 simply.