TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney officially gained a historic presidential nomination Tuesday night as Republicans tried to steer national attention toward their storm-shortened convention and a tight fall race against President Obama.
The former Massachusetts governor became the first Mormon to be nominated for president by either major party, a distinction that eluded his father, George Romney, an unsuccessful Republican candidate in the 1960s. The milestone, ensured months ago by Romney’s primary-season victories, ended a nomination journey of more than five years that included his defeat in the 2008 contest.
Romney’s wife, Ann, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were the prime-time attractions on a hastily reprogrammed opening night. Their appearances were designed to advance the convention’s dual purpose: to give voters a more intimate glimpse of the GOP nominee and to amplify Romney’s critique of Obama.
It was the candidate’s wife who stole the evening. Her deeply personal remarks, woven around the story of their life and family, was also a paean to women — a voter group that has been largely resistant to her husband — as the pivotal force in everyday life.
“I love you women! And I hear your voices,” she said during 21-minute speech punctuated with nervous laughs. “You are the best of America.”
The reflections by the person who knows him best — a down-to-earth speaker who is also, by all accounts, his most effective surrogate — were designed to counter negative voter perceptions of Romney. National polls show him with the lowest personal favorability ratings of any presidential nominee in more than 25 years.
“Let me say this to every American who is thinking about who should be our next president: No one will work harder. No one will care more. And no one will move heaven and earth like Mitt Romney to make this country a better place to live!” she said, in the night’s biggest applause line, as the arena crowd jumped to its feet.
By referring to her own health struggles, Romney tried to knock down what she said were exaggerated perceptions of theirs as a “storybook marriage.” That too seemed part of the broader Romney campaign effort to provide a contrast to his image as a wealthy businessman, born into privilege, who can’t relate to the struggles of everyday people.
“Those storybooks never seemed to have chapters called MS [multiple sclerosis] or breast cancer,” she said. “A storybook marriage? Nope, not at all. What Mitt Romney and I have is a real marriage.”
For her and other speakers, the night’s refrain was a play on an Obama campaign line about public works that aid private business (“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that”).
“As his partner on this amazing journey, I can tell you Mitt Romney was not handed success. He built it,” she said pointedly, prompting crowd chants of, “He built it!”
When she was done, her husband emerged from backstage, past a collage of black-and-white blowups from the family album, to hug her and deliver two brief kisses. “You were fabulous,” he told her.
Christie, the tough-talking Jersey pol who rejected repeated urgings to enter this year’s presidential race — and who many analysts are convinced is already maneuvering for a future national run — was chosen by Romney to deliver the evening-ending keynote address, a convention staple that typically features some of the most combative rhetoric of the entire event.
Notably for an election contest marked by overwhelmingly negative ad campaigns from both sides, Christie avoided lacerating personal references to Obama. Instead, he delivered an outsider message aimed at the nation’s leaders, prefaced by a long description of his own life and gubernatorial record.
Christie never mentioned Obama by name. The first-term governor’s most direct reference accused “Mr. President” of being poll-driven, a familiar gibe at incumbents.
“I’m here to tell you tonight that it is time to end this era of absentee leadership in the Oval Office and send real leaders to the White House. America needs Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, and we need them right now,” Christie said to loud applause. Romney looked on from the audience, seated between his wife and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
PHOTOS: The protests of the GOP convention
One of the hardest-hitting attacks on Obama came from unsuccessful GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum. The socially conservative former Pennsylvania senator assailed Obama’s election-year executive actions to spare some young illegal immigrants from deportation and allow states to seek waivers from the federal welfare law that Santorum helped draft.
“President Obama rules like he is above the law,” Santorum said. “Americans take heed: When a president can simply give a speech or write a memo and change the law to do what the law says he cannot do, we will no longer be a republic.” He accused Obama of creating “a nightmare of dependency” and drew cheers with a rare podium reference against abortion.
Overhanging the GOP’s week in Florida have been developments beyond the control of convention planners. Among the distractions: a controversy over abortion, spawned by Missouri Republican Senate nominee Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape,” and the relentless approach of a massive tropical storm into waters of the Gulf of Mexico, not far from the arena in Tampa.
News coverage of Hurricane Isaac striking the Louisiana coast on Tuesday night, the eve of Hurricane Katrina’s seventh anniversary, continued to provide stiff competition for the Romney campaign’s efforts to squeeze as much political benefit as possible from an event lacking in genuine suspense. Convention speakers, including Ann Romney, delivered messages of concern for the hurricane’s potential victims.
Romney’s formal nomination came about 5:40 p.m. EDT, when the New Jersey delegation put his delegate tally above the 1,144 delegate threshold. “Over the top” was projected on a giant video screen behind the speaker’s platform. That moment was delayed almost 24 hours by the storm-related cancellation of Monday’s session.
After the last votes were cast by Wyoming, some delegates tried to start a chant of “Mitt, Mitt, Mitt,” but it quickly faded away. Asked if there was a lack of enthusiasm, North Carolina delegate Martha Jenkins, a past president of the National Federation of Republican Women, said: “I think some of us are still concerned about the hurricane. Give us until Thursday night.”
A few minutes later, she elaborated: “I do think we’re a little subdued, and I think it’s because of the change in schedule and the hurricane. We’re a day behind where we ought to be.”
The only unscripted portion of the opening hours came in mid-afternoon, when delegates clashed briefly, but raucously, as the convention dispensed with its limited official business. There were boos after approval of a rules change for the 2016 presidential primaries, engineered by the Romney campaign, that will complicate efforts by trailing candidates to amass delegates.
A decision to unseat some Maine supporters of defeated presidential candidate Ron Paul prompted a walkout by members of the state’s delegation. Paul supporters put clothespins on their nose to express disgust.
The Romneys arrived in the convention city on Tuesday, after a three-day campaign break at their homes in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The candidate remained in the background, however, as his wife prepared to give the most important, and high-profile, speech of her life.
Mitchell Landsberg, David Lauter and Seema Mehta contributed to this report from Tampa.