By DONNA CASSATA
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Listening to Republicans, a vote for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan is imperative to save the nation.
"The republic of Washington and Jefferson is now in danger of becoming the democracy of debt and despair," Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul told delegates at the GOP convention delegates this past week. "Our great nation is coming apart at the seams."
He was one of many Republican speakers who tried to tap into the public's unease about the country's future.
In just days, Democrats will present a starkly different vision at their three-day convention in Charlotte, N.C., sketching out a portrait of a nation on the rebound after the worst financial crisis since the Depression. They will try to play a consistent theme in America's history _ optimism.
As Republicans convened in Tampa, President Barack Obama gave a preview of his pitch, telling a crowd in Charlottesville, Va., "We knew that solving our biggest challenges would take more than one year, or one term, or one president. We know we've still got a lot of work to do, but we are determined to get it done. We are determined to finish the job."
The November election offers the political parties' sharply different visions of the state of America, as well as of the government's role and reach. Republicans envision a smaller government, with fewer social safety net programs, increased defense spending, less regulations and additional tax cuts. Democrats see a government able to lift those who need help and a nation where the wealthier pay more of their share.
In the 10 weeks to the vote, the campaigns will present their competing views of the United States, a country plunged into the darkness of joblessness and debt versus one emerging into the light of recovery. Which vision stays with the electorate on Nov. 6 will determine whether Obama wins a second term or Romney captures the presidency.
"To the majority of Americans who now believe that the future will not be better than the past, I can guarantee you this: If Barack Obama is re-elected, you will be right," Romney told the convention.
Obama, in his Virginia speech last week, pleaded for more time.
"We've got more jobs to create and more good schools to build," he said. "We've got more homegrown energy to generate. We've got more troops to bring home. We've got more young people to send to college. We've got more doors of opportunity to open to everybody who is willing to work hard and walk through them. And it all depends on you."
Polling suggests the public sees little reason for optimism. Associated Press-GfK polls have found the share of the public who think the nation is headed in the right direction has been below 40 percent for more than a year, and has been below half for Obama's entire presidency. AP polling has not found a majority saying the nation is moving in the right direction since 2003.
Republicans determined to oust Obama made it personal and dramatic during three days of speeches at their convention, assailing the Democrat's leadership as a failure while using apocalyptic terms to describe a nation teetering on the financial precipice.
Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and onetime presidential candidate, said the clock is ticking. "Our great republic is almost out of time," he said.
The GOP pointed to an unemployment rate of 8.3 percent, tens of millions out of work, a sluggish economic recovery and a growing debt as the nation spends more than it has. This image of doom and gloom, bolstered by financial numbers, is the GOP's best-case argument that change is necessary in November.
"America is suffering through an economic calamity of truly historic dimensions," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said voters should be able to tell their children and grandchildren that "we helped elect Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to save America."
The images were bold at the Republican convention of the present and future.
Ryan, the vice presidential candidate, described college graduates, jobless and forced to return home, staring at the faded Obama posters in their bedrooms.
"None of us 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," said the Wisconsin congressman.
Starting Tuesday in Charlotte, Democrats will argue that Obama inherited a financial crisis that was the product of eight years of Republican George W. Bush.