A laid-back Romney puts 2012 focus on jobs

By Jeff Zeleny

New York Times News Service

Published: Saturday, March 5 2011 10:00 p.m. MST

BOSTON — As Mitt Romney travels the country lining up contributors and influential Republicans for his second presidential bid, he is presenting himself as a ready-to-lead executive, gambling that a fluency in economic matters distinguishes him from the Republican field and can help overcome concerns about authenticity that dogged his first race.

Romney makes the case, in private meetings with business owners and party leaders, that the halting economic recovery — even after a month of solid job growth in February, the unemployment rate remains at 8.9 percent — provides the most compelling rationale that he is the strongest candidate to create jobs and take on President Barack Obama.

The message is well-suited to Romney's background as a successful business executive and former governor, as well as the man who rescued the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City from financial trouble. But it also provides an opportunity to try to steer around criticism over the health care plan he created in Massachusetts, which to many Republicans looks distressingly similar to the federal law pushed through Congress last year by Obama.

And it offers him a chance to sidestep the concerns of social conservatives, some of whom question his commitment to their causes and are uncomfortable with his Mormon faith.

As he moves closer to formally opening his 2012 presidential campaign this spring, Romney has taken a far different approach than he did the last time. To avoid the risk of overexposure and early scrutiny, he is operating in a cautious, low-key fashion, building allies among Republicans by doling out money to candidates from his political action committee and testing themes on donors and other supporters without any news coverage.

Romney, who declined an interview request, is trying to present a more relaxed image to combat impressions that he is unapproachable and stiff. He has not been seen in a necktie for months — not in television appearances, meetings with donors or private political dinners.

He turned up in the pit area of the Daytona 500 last month, mingling with race car drivers while wearing a Bass Pro Shops shirt. And last week, Romney, who put his wealth four years ago at around $200 million, walked into Tommy's Barber Shop in an Atlanta strip mall for a haircut. (Aides sent a picture of him in the barber's chair out on Twitter.)

In the early maneuvering for the 2012 campaign, Romney has aimed his fire at Obama rather than any of his prospective Republican rivals, attacking the president as a weak leader who pursued a European-style big-government agenda for his first two years in office instead of focusing on jobs.

"Let me make this very clear," he said in a speech last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. "If I decide to run for president, it won't take me two years to wake up to the job crisis threatening America."

So far he has offered little in the way of specifics about his economic policies, saying only that the country needs "to believe in free enterprise, capitalism, limited government, federalism."

He was scheduled to offer a preview of his campaign message Saturday evening in Bartlett, N.H., in his first public visit to the state with the opening primary of the nominating season, a contest critical to his success.

In his 2008 race, Romney shed moderate stances on abortion and gay rights to align with a conservative electorate, prompting questions about whether his positions were driven more by politics than by conviction. This time around, a heavy concentration on jobs and the economy would signal a return to themes he struck during his successful bid for governor in 2002. Yet his record as governor also provides one of his biggest obstacles.

More even than his faith and his social-conservative credentials, questions about the health insurance plan he signed into law in Massachusetts have left him open to criticism from his party.

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