Olympians, Clint help Republicans party night away

The dancing started long before Mitt Romney took the stage, as jubilant Republicans launched a premature celebration, hoping they had picked the right man to oust Barack Obama from the White House in November.

The crowd was clearly in a party mood: Some waving American flags, or wearing red, white and blue sequins, others sporting cowboy hats as they cavorted in the cavernous red, white and blue festooned hall.

Gone for the moment were questions over Romney's conservative credentials and doubts that as a Mormon he might not be acceptable or electable.

For the crowd of more than 4,000 delegates in the cavernous convention center, amid the frenzied chanting and cheering, there was one clear conviction: the millionaire businessman and former Massachusetts governor was their man.

"I've been on the bandwagon for a long time. As much as the media wants to portray him as this job slasher and life ruiner, everything he touches turns to gold. Everything he touches," Jeremy Litster, a delegate from Idaho, told AFP.

"If I could bring him into my company as CEO, I would bring him in tomorrow. I think every company in America would do that. So why not bring him in as president?" he said at the packed convention center in Tampa, Florida.

Helping elevate the crowd's spirits and set feet moving were musical interludes that reflected the candidate's taste, culled from the pop and soft rock playlists from the 70s and 80s and interpreted by an ensemble of blue-eyed soul musicians.

Romney arrived at the Tampa Bay Times Forum at 9:22 pm (0122 GMT Friday), remaining backstage for around 40 minutes until it was time for him to deliver the biggest speech of his political life.

During easily the most spirited evening of the three-day convention, the crowd became more and more worked up as the program progressed towards its heady climax.

For many, a high point was Hollywood actor and director Clint Eastwood, who obliged the crowd with a recitation of his signature line from hit film "Dirty Harry" -- which they actually finished for him "Go ahead, make my day!"

He followed a group of American Olympians, whose presence was designed to remind voters that the candidate had saved the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City from financial ruin.

For Kristen Vander-Plas, from Lubbock Texas, celebrating Romney's ascension meant going home from the last day of the convention with a cherished souvenir -- the signature of 23 of her Republican heroes on her white straw cowboy hat.

The 24-year-old delegate collected signatures from the likes of Texas Governor Rick Perry, former senator Rick Santorum -- the runner-up to Romney in the Republican primary campaign -- and former White House advisor Karl Rove.

"I saw (congresswoman) Michele Bachmann so I just stuck a (magic marker pen) in her hand and she did it, and it's kind of ballooned from there," she explained to AFP.

On the floor of the convention, she waived her hat at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and he too obliged.

As the moment approached when Romney was due to take the stage, the crowd seemed barely able to contain its anticipation.

Litster knew exactly what he wanted to hear from Romney, after four years under a Democratic leader praised for his cool likability.

"I'm hoping to hear, 'I'm a rock star.' I wish he would get up there and say 'I'm a rock star, I'm a badass. I can fix this thing'," he said.

He quickly added that he knew the rock star thing was not Romney's style.

"He won't -- he's too conservative to say that. I wish he would. I hope he can brag about himself a little bit. Because he's awesome," Litster said.

"If you really read about him and get rid of the liberal bias that he flip-flops or this or that, he's really awesome," he said.

Romney finally took the stage after a barnstorming introduction by party rising star Marco Rubio, entering the hall to several minutes of cheering and thunderous applause.

The speech was interrupted briefly by three protesters, two women and one man.

"Democracy is not a business!" one of them chanted. "We need to put people over profits!" Delegates immediately started chanting "USA! USA!" to drown them out before they were removed by security officers.

After Romney wrapped up his speech, a crucial prime-time pitch to American voters he hopes will drive momentum for his ticket ahead of the November election, the patriotic anthem "America the Beautiful" was sung.

Then? Time for the after-party.

Against a backdrop screen of fireworks and a massive photo of the candidate and his wife, most of the Romney clan -- the couple have five sons and 18 grandchildren -- took to the stage, balloons filling the air as the James Brown classic "Living in America" rounded out the night.

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