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Mitt Romney puts faith in religion for biggest speech of his life

Republican candidate hopes Mormonism can be an asset as he tries to ignite the convention

By David Usborne in Tampa

Mitt Romney will face the Republican National Convention and the country tonight, determined finally to put away the caricature critiques of him as a disconnected and robotic flip-flopper, and to instead project himself as a man of conviction who is ready to lead the American people.

Demystifying the former private equity fund tycoon and Massachusetts Governor has been at the heart of the storm-curtailed three-day Republican gathering in Tampa. But it will be for Mr Romney himself to peel away the last of the wrapping that has so encumbered him in his six-year slog for his party's presidential nomination that began with his failed attempt in 2008. It will include, aides say, his first public comments about his Mormon religion.

Party discipline dictates that when the speech, watched by much of the nation on TV, is done and the balloons fall from the rafters of the Tampa Times Forum, the applause in the hall must be unstinting. Only the three debates with President Barack Obama in October might be more important in determining whether Mr Romney can convert what appears to be a fighting chance of victory in the election on 6 November into the real thing.

"People are looking for someone they can believe in and they can trust to lead," said Caleb Hayes, 22, a delegate from Kansas, a state that came out for conservative Rick Santorum in caucus voting earlier this year. He and his fellow delegates are now obediently with Mr Romney, however. "I think he can come across as that person."

The decision to directly address his Mormonism, which aides say Mr Romney has taken himself, is striking. It was a taboo issue for the campaign until two weekends ago when reporters were invited to join the candidate for Sunday worship. Speaking of the time she and her husband first dated, Ann Romney noted here on Tuesday: "I was an Episcopalian; he was a Mormon". It was the first time any family member had spoken the word.

Not only will Mr Romney speak of his religion tonight, amplifying shared values of charity and compassion with other Christian voters, but the stage will be given intermittently to friends and associates who will testify to his work as a Mormon bishop in Boston.

"It's something that the Governor himself insisted on talking about", top Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom told reporters this week at a breakfast hosted by Bloomberg News in Tampa. "He will make reference to it in his speech and he will hear from other speakers at the conventions about the counselling and pastoral work that Mitt Romney did."

Mr Romney can linger on his biography because speakers before him will have taken care of other important business. Paul Ryan, his Vice-Presidential pick, was set – as last night's keenly awaited keynote speaker – to focus both on his own working- class roots in Wisconsin and on policy priorities such as repealing healthcare reforms and slashing the deficit.

"I think people are going to like what they see because we are offering specific bold solutions to get people back to work, to get this country back on the right track," Mr Ryan told an interviewer yesterday. He said he will back Mr Romney's stance on abortion that is less strict than his own "because it's a vast improvement on the status quo".

On Tuesday, it was the job of Chris Christie, the New Jersey Governor, to spear Mr Obama. "It's time to end this era of absentee leadership in the Oval Office and send real leaders to the White House," he growled to loud applause.

Ben Sauceda, 29, an associate Baptist pastor from Wichita, Kansas, admitted he voted for Mr Santorum in the caucuses because of his views on marriage and abortion but says he embraced Mr Romney when he chose Mr Ryan from the party's right for the ticket. "It showed me he will put America on the right track to end the fiscal insanity and that he will protect those issues that are important to me as a social conservative."

It will fall to Marco Rubio, the popular Hispanic US senator from Florida, to introduce Mr Romney tonight. In a meeting with delegates earlier he too referenced religion. "Mitt Romney is a special human being. You look at the way Mitt Romney has lived his life as a father, as a husband, as a grandfather, as a leader in his church and his community. I mean, he is a role model for what all of us hope our kids will grow up to be." He predicted that the likeability gap between Mr Romney and Mr Obama that has shown up in the polls will narrow after the convention's close. "He offers a very different view of the future than the current President does."

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