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.
The White House has joined in, showering unhelpful praise on the plan, which, like the federal law, includes a mandate for residents to carry insurance.
Romney has defended the program, saying that it was right for Massachusetts, but that he would not impose it on other states. His forceful criticism of the national law has been overshadowed by his Republican rivals trying to conflate the two.
Several Republican strategists who worked on Romney's first presidential campaign said they had urged him to try to get ahead of the controversy a year ago during the national health care debate. But they said their suggestions were overruled by Romney and his small circle of advisers.
"He made a huge mistake not litigating his health care record when Obamacare was on the table," said Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist who advised the early stages of Romney's last campaign. "He should have been the leading opponent and said, 'I can tell you better than anyone, don't do this.' But now he's chosen to litigate this during a campaign, which is the worst time to do it."
Romney did not mention health care at the Conservative Political Action Conference. His spokesman said Romney would continue to speak against the national plan, but stand by his Massachusetts law.
"It's going to be an issue," said Eric Fehrnstrom, the spokesman. "I understand the temperature is higher now." He added, "What's important is that Mitt Romney agrees with every other candidate for the nomination that Obamacare should be repealed."
The health care law, particularly the individual mandate, has been a catalyst for the anti-Obama energy of Tea Party activists. But Romney and his advisers argue that voters will be more concerned with the economy and job creation in the months ahead.
Doug Gross, a prominent Iowa Republican and state chairman of Romney's last campaign, said Romney had a chance to create fresh appeal if he could present himself as genuine and not as someone chasing voters too far to the right.
"He was a relatively moderate governor of a Northeastern state, and he tried to come to Iowa to be a social conservative and it didn't work," Gross said. "If he can't be perceived as a true fiscal conservative and a limited government guy — the burden of proof is against him. He's got to overcome the burden."
Gross and more than a dozen other former supporters who are not aligned with other candidates said they worried whether Romney could withstand scrutiny without being tempted to reinvent himself again. But they urged him to campaign in Iowa, even with its heavy social conservative presence, because economic concerns topped nearly everyone's priority list.
"If the issue is jobs and the economy, he should fare well," said Christopher Rants, a former state legislator in Iowa who was a Romney adviser in 2008, but has not chosen a candidate this time. "That's his wheelhouse, and he needs to stick to it. If he does that he'll find support."
Four years ago, Romney focused considerable attention on the Iowa caucuses, only to finish well behind former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who spent a fraction of the money Romney did but surged with the support of evangelical voters and social conservatives. Romney has yet to settle on a strategy this year, but aides said that it would include all states.
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James Merrill, R-N.H., who led Romney's effort in the state four years ago, said there were no questions about Romney's authenticity by voters in his state who have known him for years and carefully followed him when he was Massachusetts governor.
"You convey authenticity by the ability to take tough questions," Merrill said. "He's done it and he will do it again."
"Jobs and the economy is issue No. 1 in this race," he added. "Governor Romney is very well positioned to speak on those pocketbook issues, and he's ready to lead."