Ryan in the political spotlight with convention speech

TAMPA, Florida (CNN) -- Paul Ryan follows Ann Romney into the political spotlight Wednesday with a highly anticipated speech at the Republican National Convention that seeks to portray multimillionaire former businessman Mitt Romney -- the GOP presidential candidate -- as a champion of working-class Americans who struggle under the policies of President Barack Obama.

Romney chose Ryan, the conservative House Budget Committee chairman from Wisconsin, as his running mate in hopes that the fiscal expert known for big and hard-line ideas would galvanize support on the political right and appeal to moderates and independents seeking solutions for the nation's chronic deficit and debt problem.

Ryan's speech will focus on his personal background, the fiscal problems the nation faces and how he and Romney will tackle them, campaign officials told CNN on condition of not being identified, adding that the convention theme for the day is "We Can Change It."

A Republican source familiar with Ryan's speech told CNN it will "deconstruct" the Obama agenda, with particular focus on the fiscal issues that are the congressman's strength, such as the national debt, stimulus spending and his proposed Medicare reforms, which have come under attack by Obama and Democrats. According to the source, Ryan wants to be an attack dog in the speech.

"You will get plenty of substance any time Paul Ryan speaks," Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida told reporters.

Other speakers Wednesday include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, tea party favorite Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and veteran Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who defeated Romney in the Republican presidential primary race four years ago before losing to Obama.

The vice presidential nomination and prime-time convention speech mean an elevated national profile for Ryan, the 42-year-old congressman from Wisconsin who has never run a statewide race.

On Tuesday night, Romney's wife faced a similar entry into the full-bore glare of presidential media coverage with her own prime-time speech that delivered a political broadside with a personal touch.

She mixed homespun anecdotes, such as repeated references to their first date, with references to issues considered weaknesses for her husband -- support from women, his personal wealth -- in encouraging Americans to get to know the warm and loving man she met at a high school dance.

"This was a political speech wrapped in velvet," CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger commented.

Mrs. Romney took on another tricky political issue for her husband Wednesday when she addressed a Latino coalition and challenged the traditional support by Hispanic-Americans for Democrats, including Obama.

"I feel like my importance in speaking out is making sure that those coalitions that would naturally be voting for another party wake up and say you better really look at the issues this time," she said. "You better really look at your future and say who is going to be the guy who is going to make it better for you and your children. And there is only one answer."

Rubio, a Hispanic-American conservative who is a rising Republican star, called for a more comprehensive and moderate immigration policy by Republicans in order to make inroads with the Latino community.

"The Republican Party has to become the pro-legal immigration party, not simply the anti-illegal immigration party, and that begins by recognizing that a million people a year immigrate to the United States legally, permanently. No other country even comes close," he said, adding that millions of illegal immigrants present what he called a humanitarian problem. "We are not going to give amnesty to 12 million people, we are not going to round up and deport 12 million people. Somewhere between those two ideas there is a solution."

Tuesday's first full day of proceedings came as Hurricane Isaac churned across the Gulf of Mexico and slammed into the Louisiana coast, raising concerns among Republican organizers that the convention, crucial for defining Romney to the American people, would get overshadowed by a dangerous storm on Wednesday's seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's devastating landfall.

Romney mentioned the hurricane at a campaign event Wednesday in Indiana, joking that he appreciated the chance to be there "on dry land."

"Our thoughts are, of course, with the people of the Gulf Coast states," he said, noting the Katrina anniversary. "We're grateful that it appears that Isaac will spare them from the kind of damage we saw during Katrina, but for many in the Gulf Coast who just finished repairing their homes and getting their lives back to normal, this must be a heavy burden. And so today our thoughts are with them, our prayers go out to them and our country must do all we can to help them recover."

GOP officials pushed ahead with a convention agenda designed to frame the election as a referendum on Obama's presidency while attempting to turn Romney's biggest political vulnerabilities into campaign advantages.

On Tuesday afternoon, the packed Tampa Bay Times Forum erupted in cheers when the delegation from New Jersey put Romney above the 1,144-delegate threshold needed to clinch the nomination after a rugged Republican primary campaign that saw momentum swings nearly every week and bitter attacks by GOP colleagues.

The 2,200-plus convention delegates also approved a conservative platform that calls for less government, opposes same-sex marriage and endorses a "human life amendment" to ban abortion, with no specific exceptions for cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is threatened.

Romney and Ryan, who also was endorsed by delegates Tuesday, will be formally nominated on Thursday, and Romney's acceptance speech that night will conclude the convention with the highest-profile political moment in the former Massachusetts governor's career.

The convention seeks to portray Obama as a failed leader whose policies undermine the American dream, directly attacking the president on the issue of equal opportunity that traditionally favors Democrats.

Speaker after speaker has emphasized his or her own humble beginnings as descendants of immigrants who worked hard to achieve success for their families and never expected government help or handouts. Virtually every speaker took umbrage with Obama's comment on the campaign trail that "you didn't build it" in reference to successful businesses that received government help along the way.

Mrs. Romney sought to connect with women voters, a demographic that favors Obama, by focusing on the day-to-day challenges they face.

"I'm not sure men really understand this, but I don't think there's a woman in America who really expects life to be easy," she said. "We're too smart to know there aren't easy answers but we're not dumb enough to expect there aren't better answers."

The GOP platform contains traditional conservative planks, including support for the "human life amendment" with no exceptions to an abortion ban. That runs counter to overall public opinion in America, especially among women.

Mrs. Romney concluded by declaring "you can trust Mitt," adding: "He loves America. He will take us to a better place, just as he took me home safely from that dance."

As the crowd cheered and applauded, Romney came out in his first appearance at the convention to hug and kiss his wife, telling her: "You were fabulous."

The Obama campaign has made an issue of Romney's personal wealth, challenging him to release more than the two years of tax returns he has made public -- as his father did in releasing 12 years of returns when running for president in 1968 -- and questioning whether his career as a venture capitalist benefited workers or prepared him to deal with a sluggish economy.

In her speech, Ann Romney addressed the Democratic attacks head-on, noting her husband's success throughout his career and expressing amazement that such a record was being criticized.

"If the last four years had been more successful, do we really think there would be this attack on Mitt's success?" she said.

Earlier, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus launched a litany of GOP attacks on Obama, saying that another term for the president and Vice President Joe Biden would mean "four more years of failure."

In reference to Obama, Priebus said, "He hasn't even run a garage sale or seen the inside of a lemonade stand." The nation needs a president "with real experience in a real economy," Priebus added. "Mitt Romney will be that president."

Other speakers continued the effort to denigrate Obama's presidency and depict their party and candidate as the protectors of the American dream, an issue at the heart of the Obama campaign's messaging.

"The American people are still asking 'where are the jobs,' but President Obama only offers excuses instead of answers," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told the delegates. "His record is a shadow of his rhetoric. Yet he has the nerve to say that he's moving us forward, and the audacity to hope that we'll believe him."

Rep. Dan Benishek of Michigan complained earlier that Democrats in Washington are "spending away our children's and grandchildren's futures," while Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina serenaded Obama with a chorus of the Ray Charles tune, "Hit the Road, Jack."

At a campaign event in Iowa, Obama said Tuesday that he expected the GOP convention to be "a pretty entertaining show."

"I am sure they will have some wonderful things to say about me," the president said. "But what you won't hear from them is a path forward that meets the challenges of our time."

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie concluded the first night of convention speeches with a keynote address that declared Republicans are willing to face the tough issues and find solutions that work, instead of taking the easy way out and pandering for voter support.

"Leadership delivers. Leadership counts, and leadership matters," Christie said, recounting his own record of reforms as a GOP governor in a majority Democratic state.

"Mitt Romney will tell us the truths we need to hear" and solve the problems worsened by an "era of absentee leadership in the White House," he added.

In a sign of lingering internal division in the party after a rugged primary campaign won by Romney, rival candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was thronged by supporters when he entered the convention floor before Tuesday's session convened. Some Paul supporters shouted "let him speak," referring to their candidate's exclusion from the convention agenda.

Paul supporters later protested a rule change adopted by the convention that they believe will hinder their kind of grassroots campaign in the future. They also cheered wildly when Paul received any delegates in the state-by-state roll call.

For Romney, 65, the nomination puts him within one step of the goal he first sought in 2007 by running for president after serving as a Republican governor for four years in traditionally Democratic Massachusetts.

He lost to McCain in the Republican primary campaign of 2008 and spent the next two years preparing for another try. Though rivals challenged his conservative credentials in the primaries, Romney emerged victorious. But he continues to walk a political tightrope in trying to energize right-wing support while also appealing to moderates and independent voters.

The latest CNN/ORC International poll indicates a dead heat between Romney and Obama, with new numbers released Sunday showing that 53% of likely voters believe Obama is more in touch with their needs, compared with 39% for Romney.

Obama leads by an equal margin when it comes to being in touch with the middle class, and six in 10 say Obama is in touch with the problems facing women today, with just over three in 10 feeling the same way about Romney.

Romney leads 48% to 44% over Obama on managing the government effectively and has a 6-point advantage on having a clear plan for fixing the nation's problems. Both figures are within the survey's margin of error.

"The challenge facing Romney at the GOP convention is to build on those managerial strengths while at the same trying to convince average Americans that he is in touch with their problems. Obama's personal characteristics, for the moment, outshine Romney's," CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said.