TAMPA, Fla. — It was half political rally, half revival meeting at the Tampa Bay Times Forum Tuesday night.
The stated business of the day — removing the “presumptive” from Mitt Romney’s name to make him the Republican Party’s official presidential nominee — was accomplished by late afternoon. The evening was pure theater.
Hour after hour the saints of small business marched out on stage to tout what one speaker called “the moral case for free enterprise.”
With quasi-religious fervor, the invited orators told tales of suffering, overcoming odds, and ultimate success, the fulfillment of the promise of America, where hard work and determination cannot fail to pay off.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire described her family’s efforts to survive after her husband, Joe, came back from the war in Iraq and needed a job. He decided to start a landscaping and snowplowing company.
“I spent many a sleepless night shoveling snow,” she said. “And I'm proud of the fact that in addition to being a United States Senator — I'm also pretty good with a snow plow!”
They borrowed money, with no guarantee of success. And they made it work. Now they employ people, contribute to the economy, and want Mitt Romney to be their president.
This saga was repeated, with small variations, by dozens of politicians, entrepreneurs and even entertainers during a five-hour extravaganza that sought to showcase American grit and ingenuity.
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There was Mia Love, the Utah mayor who is running for Congress. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Haiti with $10 in their pockets, and now their daughter — black, beautiful, and Mormon — is running for the US Congress.
“The America I came to know was centered in personal responsibility and filled with the American dream,” she said. "The America I know is grounded in the determination found in patriots and pioneers, in small business owners with big ideas, in the farmers who work in the beauty of our landscape, in our heroic military and Olympians.”
Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina, had her own inspirational narrative of her family, who came to America from India.
“My parents started a business out of the living room of our home and, 30-plus years later, it was a multimillion dollar company,” she said
The theme of Day Two was “We built it,” a taunting reference to a remark made by President Barack Obama in July, when he tried to make the point that infrastructure, education, and a helping hand were important factors in business success.
“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t get there on your own,” he told crowds in Roanoke, Va. “Somebody along the line gave you some help … somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”
The Republicans have seized on the phrase as a rallying cry. The president insists that government is responsible for your success, they say, but we know different.
“President Obama, with all due respect, don't tell me that my parents didn't build their business,” Haley said.
The Republicans excoriated the Democrats’ “fear tactics and divisive politics” while doing everything possible to deepen the fear and widen the divide.
“Listen closely to the Democratic Party that will gather in Charlotte and ask yourself if you ever hear your voice in the clamor,” thundered Artur Davis, a Democrat-turned-Republican who got one of the biggest responses of the evening.
“Ask yourself if these Democrats still speak for you. … When you hear the party that glorified Occupy Wall Street blast success; when you hear them minimize the genius of the men and women who make jobs out of nothing, is that what you teach your children about work? When they tell you America is this unequal place where the powerful trample on the powerless, does that sound like the country your children or your spouse risked their lives for in Iraq or Afghanistan?”
Davis, an African American and a former congressman from Alabama, is an important catch for the Republicans. An early Obama believer, he has turned against the president and is now supporting Romney.
Under all the hype was the hidden theme that Obama was somehow not American enough, that he had a different, and dangerous vision for the country.
“Obama is stifling the American dream primarily because it isn't his dream,” said actress Janine Turner.
Ann Romney, the penultimate speaker, had the uphill task of making her husband lovable to a wider populace. The Republican nominee has come off as a bit plastic and stilted in public appearances. His adoring wife told stories of their early life together, in a basement apartment with an ironing board for a dining table.
“It has been 47 years since that tall, kind of charming young man brought me home from our first dance,” she said. “Not every day since has been easy. But he still makes me laugh. And never once did I have a single reason to doubt that I was the luckiest woman in the world.”
Mrs. Romney made sure to hit all of the Republicans’ high points:
“As his partner on this amazing journey, I can tell you Mitt Romney was not handed success,” she said, to loud applause. “He built it.”
She also reinforced the suspicion and anger toward the president with subtle emphasis.
“I can only stand here tonight, as a wife, a mother, a grandmother, an American, and make you this solemn commitment: This man will not fail. This man will not let us down. This man will lift up America!” she said. “You can trust Mitt. He loves America.”
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The long-awaited star of the night was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the big, blustery, charismatic politician who may one day make his own stab at the White House.
After his own tale of humble beginnings and great success, a chronicling of “they said it couldn’t be done” sound bites, he got to his real message.
“It's time to end this era of absentee leadership in the Oval Office and send real leaders to the White House,” he said. “There is doubt and fear for our future in every corner of our country … America needs Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and we need them right now!”
He then called for an American revival: “A second American Century of strong economic growth where those who are willing to work hard will have good paying jobs to support their families and reach their dreams.
“A second American Century where real American exceptionalism is not a political punch line, but is evident to everyone in the world just by watching the way our government conducts its business and everyday Americans live their lives.
“A second American Century where our military is strong, our values are sure, our work ethic is unmatched and our Constitution remains a model for anyone in the world struggling for liberty.”
The applause built, Ann and Mitt Romney, seated in the hall, jumped to their feet, the roars of the crowd filled the cavernous space.
By the time the Reverend Sammy Rodriguez came on stage to deliver the benediction, the delegates were already filing out. No wonder: the “Amens” and “Hallelujahs” had already been heard, loud and clear.
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