TAMPA, Fla. - Republicans bestowed their presidential nomination on Mitt Romney on Tuesday, turning to the former Massachusetts governor and multi-millionaire businessman as their hope for driving Barack Obama from the White House and ushering in a new era of small-government conservatism.
The overwhelming, enthusiastic vote of delegates at the Republican National Convention belied Romney's long, difficult road to the party's nomination: losing to Sen. John McCain four years ago and fending off a series of rivals in a brutal nomination fight this year. In the end, Republicans cast aside doubts about Romney's conservative credentials and bet that American voters would be persuaded that his business acumen was just what America needed in dreary economic times.
"Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to put us back on the path to growth and create good paying private sector jobs again in America," said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, delivering the convention's keynote address, rousing the Republican audience.
Still, Republican exuberance was tempered as Hurricane Isaac slammed into the southern Louisiana coast and headed toward New Orleans late Tuesday, striking the same region hit by Hurricane Katrina seven years ago. The storm prompted Republicans to cancel the first day of the convention. Though it no longer threatens Tampa, Republicans were wary of holding a boisterous political celebration just as the storm was unleashing its fury.
With Romney's nomination now official, and Obama's assured at next week's Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S. voters will face a clear-cut clash of ideologies: Romney, conservative on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, favours cutting taxes, slashing the government and repealing Obama's signature health care overhaul — even though it was modeled after one of his own programs as governor. Obama is liberal on social issues, wants to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans and sees government as a potential force for good.
Polls show the race a dead heat, with the economy the top issue in the campaign. Voters say they trust Romney more on economic issues, but find Obama to be the more likable candidate.
Romney is scheduled to make his acceptance speech Thursday night.
In the state-by-state roll call of convention delegates, Romney won 2,061 to 190 for Ron Paul, a libertarian-leaning Texas congressman. Paul's supporters chanted and booed after the convention adopted rules they opposed, but were powerless to block, to prevent those votes from being officially registered. "Shame on you," some of his supporters shouted from the floor.
The highlights of Tuesday's session were the keynote address by Christie, a star of the party seen as a likely future presidential candidate, and the speech by Romney's wife, Ann. Both spoke during prime television time when all the major networks were airing the convention live.
"Leadership matters," Christie said. "It's time to end this era of absentee leadership in the Oval Office and send real leaders to the White House."
Ann Romney's speech was meant to cast her husband, lampooned by comedians as robotic and denounced by Democrats as lacking compassion, in a soft and likable light.
She lovingly talked of her 43-year marriage, noting her own experiences battling muscular sclerosis and breast cancer. Her speech sounded at times like a heart-to-heart talk among women and at times like a testimonial to her husband's little-known softer side. Romney lags behind Obama in surveys among female voters.
"You can trust Mitt. He loves America," his wife said.
She described him as a man who wakes up every day determined to solve the problems that others say can't be solved.
"This man will not fail," she said. "This man will not let us down."
Mitt Romney appeared on stage briefly at the end of the speech, kissing his wife, to wild cheers. It was his first appearance at the convention.
Christie's and Ann Romney's speeches followed a long series of addresses by other top party officials, praising Romney and blasting Obama. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Obama has "never run a company. He hasn't even run a garage sale or seen the inside of a lemonade stand."
Rick Santorum, one of Romney's presidential primary rivals, told the convention that under Obama, the American dream of freedom and opportunity has become a "nightmare of dependency" with almost half of the country receiving some form of government benefit.
Also, before nominating Romney, Republicans approved a party platform calling for cutting taxes as a way to stimulate the economy, ending abortion and repealing Obama's health care plan.
Congressman Paul Ryan, Romney's vice-presidential running mate, is scheduled to speak Wednesday. Republican delegates officially nominated him for the second-in-command spot on Tuesday night shortly after they named Romney.
While Republicans gathered in Florida, Obama campaigned in Iowa and Colorado as he set out on a tour of college campuses in hopes of boosting voter registration among college students, who tend to support him. Before departing the White House, he made a point of appearing before reporters to announce the government's latest steps to help those in the path of Isaac. He signed a declaration of emergency for Mississippi and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local storm response efforts in the state.
Associated Press writers David Espo, Brian Bakst, Thomas Beaumont, Tamara Lush, Brendan Farrington, Julie Mazziotta, Steve Peoples, Kasie Hunt and Philip Elliott in Florida and Steven Ohlemacher, Alicia A. Caldwell and Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.