Republican leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell made the case for a Donald Trump presidency on Tuesday, claiming he could advance a conservative agenda to break the logjam in Washington DC.

But they spent little time making a positive argument for the man himself on the night Trump officially became the party’s nominee.

Related: Republican convention live: Chris Christie whips crowd into frenzy over ‘guilty’ Clinton

Ryan and McConnell, the nation’s highest-ranking Republicans, delivered separate speeches in Cleveland that struck a similar note: the US election will be a binary choice, in which Trump is a preferable alternative to Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Ryan, the House speaker, and McConnell, the Senate majority leader, made few positive references to Trump while setting out the Republican agenda, but said Trump and his running mate, Indiana governor Mike Pence, were the most likely to sign off on the priorities set by a Republican-controlled Congress.

“Only with Donald Trump and Mike Pence do we have a chance at a better way,” said Ryan.

“So much that you and I care about, so many things we stand for, are in the balance in the coming election. Whatever we lack going into this campaign, we should not lack for motivation.

“In the plainest terms I know, it is all on the line,” he added.

McConnell ticked off a list of Republican proposals, such as stripping the women’s health agency Planned Parenthood of its federal funding and repealing the healthcare law.

“Trump would sign it,” he followed up, of each bill his party has sought to shepherd through Congress. “If Hillary Clinton is our president, nothing will change.”

Ryan and McConnell have reluctantly endorsed Trump, after remaining neutral in the Republican presidential primary.

Ryan initially declined to lend Trump his support when the real estate mogul all but clinched the party’s nomination following the Indiana primary in May, which led to the exit from the race of remaining Republican candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich. Ryan eventually backed Trump following a series of private conversations, but has continued to publicly disagree with many of his controversial statements, including his proposed ban on Muslim immigration.

McConnell has also criticized Trump on several occasions, warning of his potential to indefinitely drive Latino voters away from the Republican party and even refusing to explicitly say whether he believed Trump was qualified to be president.

In his speech on Tuesday, McConnell opened by laying out his rationale against Clinton – citing in particular the controversy over her use of a private email server as secretary of state while expressing doubts over her trustworthiness.

“Hillary has changed her positions so many times it’s impossible to tell where conviction ends and ambition begins,” the Kentucky Republican said.

“I am here to tell you Hillary Clinton will say anything, do anything, and be anything to get elected president. And we cannot allow it.”

Ryan’s and McConnell’s objections to Trump’s persona have had little effect on his supporters, particularly in an election cycle fueled by grassroots anger and a deep-rooted frustration with Washington.

In a sign of the grassroots’ growing chagrin with the Republican establishment, McConnell was booed as he walked up to the podium while Ryan received muted applause upon entry. Their remarks were well received, but elicited a far from rousing reaction from the thousands of delegates watching from within the arena.

Ryan, who addressed the GOP convention in 2012 as its vice-presidential nominee, spoke more optimistically of the Republican party and its future, even as he pointed to “arguments” within the conservative movement.

“Democracy is a series of choices. We Republicans have made ours,” he said.

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