7:30 p.m. A leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, introduced as only “Ken Hutchins of Massachusetts,” offers the opening benediction. It’s an eloquent tribute to “our kind and loving heavenly father” in the “sacred and holy name of Jesus Christ.” As he prays, a Spanish-speaking television reporter does a live broadcast at one end of the arena. Delegates try to hit her with a cowboy hat and a water bottle to make her stop talking. But they can’t quite reach her. The final night of the Republican convention is underway.
7:38 p.m. Someone waves a sign that reads, “Mitt Is a Ninja,” which means tonight could be totally awesome. Another acclaimed fighter, Connie Mack IV, who is running for Senate in Florida, takes the stage to talk about renewing dreams, dreams becoming reality, and morning in America.
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7:45 p.m. Cue the Ronald Reagan highlight reel, which introduces Newt and Callista Gingrich, with a history lesson about Reagan’s greatness and Democratic rottenness. This leads logically to Gingrich saying Barack Obama “gutted” welfare reform and instituted a “waiving of the work requirements.” Gingrich is wrong. The Obama waiver mandates that states demonstrate they “improve employment outcomes for needy families,” or “face termination of the waiver project.”
7:56 p.m. The G.E. Smith band launches into “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” an old Obama campaign anthem. That leads to a bilingual tribute video to Latino Republicans: “It’s not just about sí se puede. It has to be about cómo se puede.” The Spanish-speaking Romney son, Craig, comes out to speak more Spanish. He tells the crowd en español that his father “values that we are a nation of immigrants.” Then he tears up talking about his family’s story.
8:04 p.m. The disembodied voice of Fred Thompson fills the room, narrating a video of rustling leaves, kids playing wiffle ball and blue-collar white guys laughing in diners. These atmospheric freedom videos are the political equivalent of fortune cookies.
8:06 p.m. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush gets a standing ovation as he arrives to talk education reform. First, though, he goes off script to praise his father and grandfather, who “served our country honorably,” he says. “And my brother…” He pauses a beat. “Well, I love my brother.” This was not on the prompter. He goes on to praise his brother’s integrity and accomplishments before calling education inequality “the great moral and economic issue of our time.” He illustrates the case for school choice with a milk metaphor. We have regular, chocolate and strawberry milk, he points out, drawing an analogy to different types of schools. Then he stretches the metaphor to the breaking point. “They even make milk for people who can’t drink milk.” That’s like a school for people who can’t go to school.
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8:25 p.m. The house band fires up. You can tell by the way the delegates dance with their signs that it’s a different ballgame than the past two nights. Smith is wearing a suit. Three ladies from Missouri, yellow sunflowers stuck to the brims of their hats, sway with an American flag.
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8:31 p.m. Grant Bennett, Romney’s successor as the leader of a Mormon congregation in Massachusetts, describes ”glorious hours” spent with Mitt in the church. Bennett uses more superlatives than a high school yearbook, but it’s powerful stuff. Romney rising at dawn, raking leaves and shoveling snow for elderly congregants. “I had a front row seat” to Romney’s leadership “and it was marvelous to behold,” Bennett says.
8:41 p.m. An elderly couple tells the story of how Romney comforted their son during his terminal illness and gave the eulogy at his funeral. “David’s story is part of Mitt’s story and America deserves to hear it,” the husband says in a thick Massachusetts accent. He’s not wrong.
8:45 p.m. More tales of compassion in the face of tragedy. Another former congregant tells how Romney came to visit her premature baby in the hospital. “I will never forget that when he looked down tenderly at my daughter, his eyes filled with tears, and he reached out gently and stroked her tiny back,” she says.
8:50 p.m. Bob White, Romney’s longtime business partner and “wingman,” makes Bain Capital sound like a bunch of eagle scouts building soup kitchens. “Integrity. Respect. Responsibility. Trust. These are not just words to Mitt Romney,” White says. “These are principles he lives by. He applied them to the way we worked.”
8:58 p.m. A video explains why Obama is bad and Bain is awesome. Not ninja awesome. But still awesome.
8:59 p.m. Staples Founder Tom Stemberg praises Bain some more. “Who would make a better president: Someone who knows how to save a dollar on pens and paper, or someone who knows how to waste $535 million on Solyndra?” Stemberg asks. The crowd is his, and the rest is easy. Stemberg even gets a chant going in the hall.
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9:13 p.m. After another video and another Bain enthusiast, it’s time for political praise. Kerry Healey, the former Lt. Governor of Massachusetts, testifies to Romney’s performance: Cut taxes, slashed unemployment, earned a credit upgrade. “Thank you Mitt Romney for believing in America. And America, you can believe in Mitt Romney,” she says. Then Jane Edmonds, a self-described liberal Democrat who worked in Romney’s state cabinet, offers cross-aisle testimony. “He is the real thing,” she says, before noting that he “improved the representation of women in senior positions in mass state government.”
9:22 p.m. The press pool reports that Romney is in the building. As we wait, there’s a performance by Taylor Hicks, the American Idol star, followed by a parade of Olympic medal winners. Before long, the crowd is chanting “U.S.A., U.S.A.” Speed skater Derek Parra talks about carrying the tattered flag that flew at the World Trade Center on 9/11 to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. “If it’s possible to feel your soul being touched, that’s how it felt,” he says. He chokes up. The crowd chokes up.
9:46 p.m. Singer BeBe Winans belts out a patriotic hymn with a gospel choir as backup. He’s a Democrat who sang at Obama’s inauguration. The guy has serious pipes.
9:51 p.m. Here’s the glimpse of the Romney family that pundits have been clamoring for. In a video, Romney tells the camera the day his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis was the hardest of his life. He recalls telling her that he would be a happy man “as long as I’ve got my soul mate with me.” Pictures flash of Ann, young and pretty, from when they first got married. “Ah, she’s gorgeous – absolutely beautiful,” he says. “You know, I can’t explain love. I don’t know why it happens. I don’t know why it endures the way that it does.” There are grainy old home movies of the Romney kids, and testimonials about Mitt, who sported passable ’70s sideburns way back when. It’s a winsome video, and the perfect moment for the campaign to run it.
10:03 p.m. Or maybe not. Because here is tonight’s “mystery guest,” Clint Eastwood, staggering out to converse with an empty chair. Just as the networks tune in, Eastwood explains that he’s talking to an invisible Obama – not an empty suit, but an empty seat. “Do you just – you know – I know – people were wondering – you don’t – handle that OK,” Eastwood says. He says lawyers shouldn’t be president, not realizing Romney is one. He appears to suggest the empty chair made a lewd insult. The red light signaling his time is up starts blinking. “You’re crazy. You’re absolutely crazy,” Eastwood mumbles to the empty seat. This is really happening. “I’m not going to shut up. It’s my turn.” The warning light is solid red now. He keeps going. He’s made Obama’s day.
10:15 p.m. The tragedy of Eastwood’s performance is that it’s sandwiched between killer family footage and a sparkling keynote from Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the rare phenom who is even better than advertised. Rubio’s speech is an eloquent ode to a “special” America where parents work two jobs “so doors closed to them would be open for you.” It’s a big-time speech when the chips are down, a scathing denunciation of Obama rendered in a key of sorrow, not anger.
10:33 p.m. Romney enters at the back of room to Kid Rock’s “Born Free.” He makes his way toward the stage, shaking hands as he goes, State of the Union style. Four guys are furiously trying to dislodge the pop-up lectern from the dais, but all eyes are on Mitt.
10:35 p.m. The lectern is up and Romney is behind it. “Mr Chairman and delegates, I accept your nomination for the President of the United States,” he says to wild applause. Romney looks chuffed.
10:36 p.m. He begins by talking about the guy he’s running with—Paul Ryan, “a man with a big heart from a small town”– and the guy he’s running against. Americans deserved hope and change after the 2008 election, Romney says. “I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed. But his promises gave way to disappointment and division.”
10:42 p.m. Protesters begin shouting somewhere in the crowd. Romney keeps talking, but the rest of the audience drowns everything out with chants of “U-S-A. U-S-A.”
10:45 p.m. Romney moves to biography. He describes what it was like to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon–“When the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American,” he says—and grow up Mormon in Michigan: “My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to.” When he talks about his parents relationship and his father’s death, Romney begins to choke up. It’s not just a human moment. It’s an important one. Few people have seen this side of him before.
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10:48 p.m. Being a stay-at-home mom is harder than any job he’s had, Romney says, and his wife Ann “would have succeeded at anything she wanted to.” Another sweet moment.
10:56 p.m. Romney tells a funny. “I had thought about asking my church’s pension fund to invest” in his company, Bain Capital, he says. “But I didn’t. I figured it was bad enough that I might lose my investors’ money, but I didn’t want to go to hell too.” Edgy. Hell is probably the worst word he’s ever said.
10:58 p.m. Romney defends the practice of firing. “Steve Jobs was fired at Apple. Then he came back and changed the world,” he says. The crowd loves it.
11:02 p.m. Finally time for a little light policy: Obama likes taxes, hates coal, cuts defense, raids Medicare and spends too much, Romney says. Whereas the Republican ticket will create 12 million jobs, achieve energy independence by 2020 and balance the budget. Never mind how. Doesn’t matter when you have a good line: “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” Romney says. “My promise is to help you and your family.”
11:14 p.m. Romney promises to unite America and restore it to its former glory. “Let us begin that future together tonight,” he concludes. Ryan joins him onstage as the bands plays “Living in America.” The balloons fall. The confetti follows. The crowd claps. Romney waves. The wives come out. More balloons. The kids come out. More claps. More kids. More balloons.
11:18 p.m. The band plays “America the Beautiful,” Romney’s favorite song. He sings along. The kids play with the balloons. The delegates begin to leave. Tampa 2012 is done.