TAMPA, Fla. – Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Republicans at the party's convention Wednesday that the "American ideal" is "endangered" and said the country's standing in the world depends on solving problems at home.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Rice said, is best qualified to "rebuild the foundation of our strength -- the American economy."
Rice, who served under President George W. Bush, brought foreign policy into a presidential race that has focused largely on a struggling economy.
"We must work for an open global economy and pursue free and fair trade to grow our exports and our influence abroad," she said. "In the last years, the United States has ratified three trade agreements, all negotiated in the Bush Administration.
"If you are concerned about China's rise, consider this fact: China has signed 15 Free Trade Agreements and is negotiating 20 more," she said. "Sadly we are abandoning the playing field of free trade and it will come back to haunt us."
Without mentioning President Obama by name, Rice hit the current administration for "failed policies" that "cast a pall over the American recovery so desperately needed at home and abroad."
"Wen the world looks at us today they see an American government that cannot live within its means," she said. "They see an American government that continues to borrow money that will mortgage the future of generations to come. The world knows that when a nation loses control of its finances, it eventually loses control of its destiny.
"Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan understand this reality -- that our leadership abroad and our well being at home are inextricably linked," she said. "They know what needs to be done."
"They will provide the answer to where does America stand?'" Rice said.
The 57-year-old Rice referenced her childhood growing up in racially segregated Birmingham, Ala. The young girl who could not order a hamburger from a Woolworth's lunch counter would go on to become secretary of state, she said, adding, "Yes, America has a way of making the impossible seem inevitable in retrospect."
"The essence of America – that which really unites us — is not ethnicity, or nationality or religion – it is an idea — and what an idea it is: That you can come from humble circumstances and do great things. That it doesn’t matter where you came from but where you are going," she said.
Rice also asserted that the nation's education system needs major improvements -- which she called "the civil rights issue of our day." She said parents need to be given greater choice, particularly poor minority families living in neighborhoods with failing schools.
Rice's address appeared to resonate with convention-goers who cheered for the nation's former top diplomat from beginning to end.
"I thought it was a fantastic speech, particularly the idea that education is a civil rights question of today and school choice for the under privileged," Darly Woodard, an alternate delegate from Oklahoma, told FoxNews.com.
Rice returned to the national spotlight Wednesday after spending several years back in California, as a professor with Stanford University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
In an interview with Fox News, Rice pushed back on the suggestion that she might be angling for a spot in a Romney administration Cabinet.
"I want Mitt Romney to be elected president," she said, before adding: "I am a very happy Stanford professor."
She continued: "I've been secretary of state. I love foreign policy. I don't love politics. I love policy. When you have the chance to be America's chief diplomat, there's nothing else that you want to do in that regard."
FoxNews.com's Cristina Corbin and Joseph Weber contributed to this report.