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TAMPA, Fla. - Mitt Romney claimed the Republican nomination for president Thursday, introducing himself to millions of Americans as a can-do executive and warm-hearted family man who's all set to make Barack Obama a one-term president.
"If I am elected President of these United States, I will work with all my energy and soul to restore . America, to lift our eyes to a better future," Romney said before a cheering crowd of excited Republicans at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
"That future is our destiny. That future is out there. It is waiting for us. Our children deserve it, our nation depends upon it, the peace and freedom of the world require it. And with your help we will deliver it. Let us begin that future together tonight."
In what is widely viewed as the most important address of his career, the former Massachusetts governor made the case for a smaller and more conservative government that will encourage job creation and reduction of the federal deficit.
"What America needs is jobs," Romney said. "Lots of jobs."
To that end, Romney outlined a five-point economic plan that stressed energy independence, job training and education, free and fair trade, a tight federal budget and the elimination of regulations that hamper small business.
The speech was short on details of Romney's economic plan, but the nominee said he would be able to create 12 million new jobs.
"I am running for president to help create a better future - a future where everyone who wants a job can find one, where no senior fears for the security of their retirement, an America where every parent knows that their child will get an education that leads them to a good job and a bright horizon," he said.
The speech kicks off what most see as an epic campaign against Obama, who will be formally renominated at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte next week.
And in his speech, Romney wasn't shy about taking the fight directly to the sitting president. "To the majority of Americans who now believe that the future will not be better than the past, I can guarantee you this: if Barack Obama is re-elected, you will be right," he said.
Acknowleding that four years ago, "hope and change had a powerful appeal," he added: "If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn't you feel that way now that he's President Obama? You know there's something wrong with the kind of job he's done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him."
Romney also tried to counter Democratic arguments that, in the words of former GOP chairman Haley Barbour, Romney is "a wealthy plutocrat who's married to a known equestrian."
In the Romney view of Romney, the GOP nominee is someone who succeeded in business through hard work.
"That business we started with 10 people has now grown into a great American success story," he said of the private equity firm he started, Bain Capital. "Some of the companies we helped start are names you know," he said, citing Staples and the Sports Authority.
Romney also used the speech to show the more personal side of a candidate who is often criticized for stiffness on the campaign trail and who, polls show, strikes voters as far less likable than Obama.
To counter that impression, Romney described the home he and his wife found in the Mormon church as a young couple. "We had remarkably vibrant and diverse congregations of all walks of life and many who were new to America," he said. "We prayed together, our kids played together and we always stood ready to help each other out in different ways."
Romney's speech capped a truncated three-day convention that aims to give Republicans a boost in a tight presidential race.
Before Romney took the stage, the candidate turned to a "surprise guest" to energize the crowd: tough guy actor Clint Eastwood, who delivered an unscripted routine with an empty chair supposedly occupied by the president.
Eastwood pretended to quiz Obama on a series of unfulfilled promises. "You're getting as bad as [Vice President] Biden," he said, "the intellect of the Democratic Party. Kind of a grin with a body behind it."
While Eastwood whipped up the crowd with his trademark "make my day" mantra, he received his loudest response by suggesting the current occupant of the White House should be replaced. "When someone does not do the job," he said, "you gotta let him go."
Thursday's grand convention finale did not mark the candidate's first foray into the convention hall. Romney joined his wife, Ann, on Tuesday following her delivery of a speech that received widespread acclaim, and he quietly walked onto the podium Thursday at 4:15 p.m., dressed in a dark suit and familiarizing himself with the Teleprompter as hundreds of surprised conventioneers already in the arena snapped pictures.
Speakers at the Thursday session appeared chosen according to their ability to achieve strategists' goal of introducing their candidate.
The founder of Staples praised Romney from the podium, as did other executives whose companies thrived with Bain Capital's help.
Several former Massachusetts officials who served in Romney's administration, including former Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, praised him.
Healey discussed much of Romney's economic plan while governor of Massachusetts. But she also warmly described her former boss in another attempt to positively define him.
"Mitt is a good and honorable man, committed to public service and his country," she said. "On the morning he took the oath of office, his first act was to focus public attention on those in need. We served breakfast to homeless veterans, encouraging volunteerism and acknowledging the special debt we owe to those who sacrifice for our country."
Meanwhile, U.S. Olympians including 1980 champion hockey captain Mike Eruzione stressed Romney's experience as president of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002.
Stars of the Republican Party who also delivered remarks included former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (joined by his wife, Callista), a bitter rival for the GOP presidential nod just a few months ago.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush - an extremely popular political figure in this swing state - delivered a highly anticipated speech in which he veered from the script to defend his brother, Obama's predecessor, President George W. Bush.
"He is a man of integrity, courage and honor and during incredibly challenging times, he kept us safe," he said. "So Mr. President, it is about time to stop blaming your predecessor for your failed economic policies. .?.?. In the fourth year of your presidency, a real leader would accept responsibility for his actions, and you haven't done it."
Another Floridian, Sen. Marco Rubio, introduced Romney for the central address of the evening in another gesture to the Sunshine State.
Rubio devoted much of his remarks to criticizing Obama as a "bad president," quipping that "hope and change" has become "divide and conquer." He said Romney offers a profound change. "Mitt Romney believes that if we succeed in changing the direction of our country, our children and grandchildren will be the most prosperous generation ever, and their achievements will astonish the world," he said.
After the traditional acknowledgement to the crowd by the nominees and their wives amid a cascade of balloons and confetti, the convention ended, and Romney planned to set out on a day of campaigning in Florida and Ohio today.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com and jzremski@buffnews.com.