Florida also in spotlight on Romney's big night

After a heartfelt biographical film, a bizarre bit by Clint Eastwood and an introduction by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney accepted the Republican Party's nomination for president Thursday with a speech intended to connect with Americans in a personal way.

Long on optimism about the country's future but short on policy specifics about achieving his goals, Romney energized his Tampa Bay Times Forum audience -- as would be expected when preaching to the choir. How that plays in the heartland will soon be seen in polls.

Even staunch conservative Republicans such as Joe Scarborough, host of "Morning Joe" on MSNBC and a former Florida congressman, expressed concerns about Romney's chances of capturing the White House. "Nothing fantastic," Scarborough stated, describing Romney's speech on Friday morning's show. But it got the job done.

Now the campaigning begins with these key questions still to be answered: Can Romney close the likeability gap with President Obama? Can the GOP nominee unite his party's factions and also swing independent voters and connect with women?

Florida played a prominent role in Thursday night's closing ceremonies of the National Republican Convention, taking center stage with speeches from Sen. Rubio, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Rep. Connie Mack IV.

Rubio's introduction of Romney in prime time made clear that the freshman senator is one of the next-generation Republican leaders and a potential presidential candidate in 2016 should Romney falter in November. For the past year, Rubio has crisscrossed the country to cultivate a following, thus revealing his strong ambitions.

As a Cuban-American, Rubio's personal story offers a compelling example of the fulfillment of the American dream by an immigrant family fleeing revolutionary oppression. He related part of that story in his speech, introducing himself to the nation as a Hispanic leader in a political party desperate to break the Democratic grip on that powerful voting bloc.

With a convention crowd cheering enthusiastically, Rubio succeeded in elevating his political stature even further.

Jeb Bush, also a favorite of GOP stalwarts who continue to press him for a presidential run, focused on his passion, education reform, and his solutions, school choice and classroom accountability. His either-or choice between "politically powerful" teacher unions or helping schoolchildren resonated with an audience opposed to public employee unions.

Unlike most convention speakers, Bush articulated policy, not politics. The constant drumbeat of anti-Obama messages will not be enough to sway the election. Romney should take a page out of the Bush playbook and begin to detail his policy solutions beyond buzzwords like "jobs," his one-word answer Thursday to the nation's economic doldrums. Romney did expand on that but only with broad strokes, such as reining in regulation.

For his part as the first speaker, Mack -- locked in a heated Senate race with incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson -- gave a strong and sentimental speech about the American dream, standard fare at political conventions.

Manatee County's delegates expressed optimism and enthusiasm for the Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan ticket. Kathleen King, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Manatee; Carlos Beruff, Peggy Simone and John Colon came away from the convention inspired.

Beruff, a Parrish-based developer, described his party's nominee in eloquent terms to Herald reporter Sara Kennedy: "Mitt Romney is one of the finest individuals I've ever met. He's just a nice person. ... Substance -- he has substance and a deep, deep passion for the well-being of this country."

Romney's challenge is convincing voters of that likeability while also presenting a detailed slate of game-winning policies. Should he succeed, he will become the nation's 45th president.