TAMPA, Florida (CNN) - Paul Ryan energized the Republican National Convention with a powerful attack on President Barack Obama that championed conservative principles, setting the stage for Mitt Romney's defining speech on Thursday night to accept the party's presidential nomination.
In the biggest speech of his still young political career, the Republican vice presidential nominee told the party faithful and the American public that time is running out to solve the nation's fiscal problems, but the GOP ticket can do it if elected in November.
"We will not duck the tough issues -- we will lead," Ryan said in his prime-time address televised nationwide. "... The work ahead will be hard. These times demand the best of us -- all of us, but we can do this. We can do this. Together, we can do this.".
Republicans at the Tampa Bay Times Forum punctuated Ryan's speech with frequent cheers and ovations, showing he delivered the kind of political red meat they craved as the campaign heads into the stretch drive with the race very close.
"He really did blow the roof off this place," said CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley, labeling the performance "the tee-up for Mitt Romney tomorrow."
Ryan's speech was part of a campaign effort to portray Romney, a multimillionaire businessman and former Massachusetts governor, as a champion of working-class Americans who struggle with high unemployment and a sluggish post-recession economy under 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 problems.
Ryan decried a dearth of leadership under Obama and pledged results in keeping with the convention theme for the day: "We Can Change It."
"I accept the calling of my generation to give our children the America that was given to us, with opportunity for the young and security for the old -- and I know that we are ready," Ryan said. "Our nominee is sure ready. His whole life has prepared him for this moment -- to meet serious challenges in a serious way, without excuses and idle words. After four years of getting the runaround, America needs a turnaround, and the man for the job is Governor Mitt Romney."
Focus on fiscal issues
Ryan focused mostly on the fiscal issues that are his strength, such as the national debt, stimulus spending under Obama and his proposed Medicare reforms that would partially privatize the government health care system for senior citizens.
Obama and Democrats have attacked the Ryan plan, and he sought to turn the tables on the issue by repeating the factually challenged assertion that the president cut Medicare by more than $700 billion to cover the costs of the 2010 health care reform law passed by Democrats.
The figure comes from a July 24 Congressional Budget Office report that said repealing the health care law, as called for by Romney and Ryan, would increase spending on Medicare by $716 billion through 2022. At the same time, the CBO letter said keeping what critics call "Obamacare" in place would not mean a $716 billion decrease in Medicare spending, as claimed by Ryan.
Independent fact-checking organizations have rated the accusation first made by Romney that Obama raided Medicare to pay for "Obamacare" as mostly false. Ryan, however, said he and Romney welcomed the debate on how to ensure the long-term solvency of the popular entitlement program that is a key part of America's social safety net.
His speech included some humorous jabs at Obama that drew laughs and ovations from a charged convention crowd.
"With all their attack ads, the president is just throwing away money -- and he's pretty experienced at that," Ryan said early in the speech. He also joked about his running mate's musical tastes, chiding Romney for the "elevator music" that reflected their generational gap.
Later, Ryan received a standing ovation when he asked: "Without a change in leadership, why would the next four years be any different from the last four years?"
He also peppered his remarks with references to central government planning and control, code words for socialism among the most conservative elements of the Republican Party.
"None of us should have to settle for the best this administration offers -- a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us," he said.
In the most emotional moment, Ryan paid tribute to his mother, who started her own business after his father died.
"It was a new life, and it transformed my mom from a widow in grief to a small businesswoman whose happiness wasn't just in the past," Ryan said. "Her work gave her hope. It made our family proud. And to this day, my mom is my role model."
In the VIP box of the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Ryan's mother, Betty, stood and waved, and he touched his heart with his hand while gazing at her.
America's role in the world
In other speeches Wednesday night, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and John McCain of Arizona offered biting criticism of Obama's presidency, saying he was failing to adhere to American values.
Paul took aim at domestic policies that he blamed for the country's debt now equaling its economic production, calling Obama "uniquely unqualified to lead this great nation."
McCain, the Republican presidential candidate defeated by Obama four years ago, targeted what he called diminishing American power and influence around the world. He accused Obama of abandoning freedom movements in Iran and Syria by not supporting protesters trying to overthrow oppressive regimes, saying "our president is not being true to our values."
"We can choose to follow a declining path, toward a future that is dimmer and more dangerous than our past, or we can choose to reform our failing government, revitalize our ailing economy, and renew the foundations of our power and leadership in the world," said McCain, a consistent advocate for a stronger military. "That is what's at stake in this election."
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice added her voice to the call for American strength through power, delivering a politically charged speech that accused Obama of yielding the nation's leadership role in the world.
"It just has to be that the freest and most compassionate country on the face of the Earth will continue to be the most powerful," Rice said to cheers. She also made a strong call for education reform, labeling the lack of successful schools in impoverished areas the "civil rights issue" of our day.
Romney and Republicans contend that Obama's policies, such as stimulus spending, have worsened an already bad economic situation the president inherited from the previous GOP administration of President George W. Bush. They propose traditional conservative policies to shrink government, cut taxes and drastically reform entitlements, which they say will bring economic growth and job creation.
Obama and Democrats say such prescriptions are failed policies of the past, and call for increased revenue sources such as higher taxes for wealthy Americans to be part of a deficit reduction plan that includes some spending cuts and entitlement reforms.
"On almost every issue he wants to go backwards, sometimes all the way to the last century," Obama said Wednesday at a campaign event in Virginia.
For Ryan, 42, the vice presidential nomination and convention speech means an elevated national profile after never having run a statewide race.
The convention is proceeding as Hurricane Isaac drenches the Gulf Coast after making landfall in Louisiana on Tuesday night, the eve of the seven-year anniversary of devastating Hurricane Katrina. The storm prompted Republican organizers to postpone the first day of the convention, which is a crucial opportunity for defining Romney to the American people.
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.
Ryan's speech emphasized that effort, concluding with a call for voters of all parties to "come together for the sake of our country" by backing the Republican ticket.
Romney clinched the GOP nomination in the roll call of state delegates Tuesday 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.
Personal stories of hard work, success
Romney and Ryan, who also was endorsed by delegates Tuesday, will be formally nominated on Thursday when Romney will deliver his acceptance speech to conclude the convention and move the campaign toward the election.
Throughout the convention, 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 that" in reference to successful businesses that received government help along the way.
On Tuesday night, Romney's wife, Ann, faced a similar entry as Ryan into the full 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 and 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.
Ann Romney took on another tricky political issue for her husband on 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."
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.
Though rivals challenged his conservative credentials in the 2012 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.