By Deborah Charles
TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - Ann Romney had one major goal in her nationally televised speech at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday: Make America understand the side of her husband, Mitt, that she knows and loves.
After a nervous start, the wife of the Republican nominee for president delivered a heartfelt address that repeatedly brought sign-waving Republican delegates to their feet with cheers and applause.
Using a Teleprompter for the first time in her life, Ann Romney, 63, told the convention delegates that she wanted to talk about love. And she wanted to give insight into her husband, who just hours before was officially nominated to oppose Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.
The speech was viewed by Romney's campaign as a crucial part of a convention plan to make Mitt Romney seem likable, approachable and in touch with the concerns of middle-class Americans.
For months, Obama and his allies have been able to define Mitt Romney as a wealthy private equity executive with little sympathy for the less fortunate.
In Tampa, a priority for Republicans has been to portray the candidate as an effective business executive and caring family man who will lead the United States into an economic turnaround.
Tuesday night, Ann Romney recalled meeting her husband at a high school dance and described how he had attacked every challenge he has faced - from reviving the struggling 2002 Salt Lake Olympics to helping her battle multiple sclerosis and breast cancer.
"At every turn in his life, this man I met at a high school dance has helped lift up others," she said. "He did it with the Olympics, when many wanted to give up.
"This is the man America needs. This is the man who will wake up every day with the determination to solve the problems that others say can't be solved, to fix what others say is beyond repair."
After a rocky start in which she giggled and seemed to rush through her lines, Ann Romney delivered a 20-minute speech. By the end, she was in command of a supportive, enthusiastic crowd of party delegates.
She received a standing ovation as she urged the crowd - and the TV audience across America - to "look into your hearts," trust her husband and vote for him in the November 6 election against Democratic President Barack Obama.
Ann Romney made a special effort to praise the "moms of this nation ... who really hold this country together," and veered from her planned text to yell out, "I love you, women, and I hear your voices!"
Mitt Romney, who will give his convention-ending speech on Thursday night, made a cameo appearance on stage after his wife finished her speech. He gave her a kiss on the podium and waved to the roaring crowd before leaving as a band played "My Girl."
"I thought it was exactly what people needed to hear, which was his personal life and his story," said Kevin Fulton, a cowboy hat-wearing delegate from Texas.
HUMANIZING HER HUSBAND
"Ann Romney did a near perfect job tonight humanizing Mitt Romney, as only the key character witness can," said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak. "This is a real woman who convincingly talked about their 'real marriage' in a way that was unquestionably appealing to women everywhere."
More Americans like Obama than Romney; a recent Gallup Poll indicated that 54 percent considered Obama likable compared with just 31 percent for Romney.
Ann Romney is hoping to change that and to chisel away at the advantage that Obama has with female voters. Though Romney and Obama are running neck-and-neck nationally, opinion polls show a sharp gender gap with women much more likely to support the Democrat.
Republicans clearly are aware of their need to improve their standing among women, and they rolled out a series of Republican women speakers before Ann Romney took the stage. One, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, called Ann Romney a "silver bullet" for the Republican campaign.
SUPPORT WHEN SHE WAS SICK
Ann Romney, who increased her public appearances during the two weeks before the convention, has shared details of her battles with multiple sclerosis and breast cancer.
In an interview this week with CBS, she gave new details about miscarriages she had, including when she was in her 40s that was particularly hard on her youngest son, Craig.
On the campaign trail, she has detailed how her husband, who has been criticized at times for being too stiff and stoic, was supportive when she was debilitated by fatigue from multiple sclerosis.
Anita McBride, chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush, said Ann Romney had to risk giving too much information about her personal life because she was still not well known by many Americans.
In a recent Gallup Poll, nearly a quarter of those surveyed said they had no opinion of Ann Romney while about 42 percent said they had a favorable impression of her. In contrast, First Lady Michelle Obama is viewed favorably by about two-thirds of Americans.
"You almost are forced to expose a little bit more because people are trying to connect to you," said McBride, an executive-in-residence at American University, where she specializes in the roles of first ladies in U.S. history. "That's a role she partly has to play right now."
In her speech, Ann Romney also tried to dispel the belief that she and her husband - a former private equity executive who made millions before entering politics - had never struggled in life.
"I read somewhere that Mitt and I have a 'storybook marriage,'" she said. "Well let me tell you something - in the storybooks I read, there were never long, long rainy winter afternoons in a house with five boys screaming at once. And those storybooks never seemed to have chapters called MS or Breast Cancer.
"A storybook marriage? No, not at all. What Mitt Romney and I have is a real marriage."
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Sam Youngman; Editing by David Lindsey)