After the hours of speeches and the acres of media coverage, it all comes down to this: forty minutes with Mitt Romney before an estimated audience of forty million people.
Mr. Romney will deliver the most important speech of his political career on Thursday evening, accepting the Republican nomination for president in the much-anticipated finale to his party's convention.
After two days of relatively lackluster proceedings, the Republican gathering flared into life late Wednesday evening. Paul Ryan, Mr. Romney's running mate, took to the stage and electrified the crowd with a hard-hitting speech critical of President Barack Obama but short on policy specifics.
Recent polls show that both men face an uphill battle with the broader American electorate. Surveys have indicated that Mr. Ryan was the least popular vice-presidential pick since George W. Bush selected Dan Quayle in 1988. More than half of Americans, meanwhile, have an unfavourable impression of Mr. Romney, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted last week.
The numbers explain why the convention – and the chance for both men to speak to Americans in an unmediated way – is so critical for the Republican effort. Mr. Ryan, 42, may surf a wave of better ratings in the wake of his speech, like his predecessor Sarah Palin did in 2008.
But it is Mr. Romney's speech that will define the convention's success or failure. Asked how the event was unfolding, William Kristol, a prominent conservative commentator and editor of the Weekly Standard, failed to muster much enthusiasm.
It's going "pretty well," he said, when buttonholed at an event on Wednesday afternoon, several hours before Mr. Ryan's speech. Everything hinges on Mr. Romney, he added.
Mr. Kristol said that he had attended political conventions where the first two or three days appeared rocky, but then the nominee's speech cleared away doubts (and vice-versa). "Romney's speech is just so much more important than anything else," he said.
The Republican party has struggled at times to get its message out this week, thanks partly to unexpected competition for attention from Hurricane Isaac. Severe weather continued near the Gulf Coast on Wednesday, although the hurricane was later downgraded to a tropical storm. Hundreds of thousands were without electricity and water flooded over levees in an area south of New Orleans.
Mr. Obama also made sure that the Republican event didn't monopolize the media landscape. On Wednesday afternoon, the president took to the popular website Reddit to answer reader questions. So many people tried to use the site that it swamped the company's servers.
Still, in a nod to Mr. Romney's big moment in the limelight, Mr. Obama has not scheduled any public events for Thursday night, Politico reported.
On Wednesday evening, Mr. Ryan attempted to fire up the party's base without unnerving the wider universe of American voters, many of whom know very little about him. He emphasized the need for change after what he described as four years of economic failures and disillusionment. "College graduates shouldn't have to live out their 20s in childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life," he said.
The surprise star of the night preceded Mr. Ryan in the program. Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state and national security adviser to President George W. Bush, wowed the crowd with an eloquent speech that went well beyond foreign policy to issues like failing schools.