Jim Cole, Associated Press
BARTLETT, N.H. — This time, Mitt Romney has a clear pitch: I'm the strongest Republican to challenge President Barack Obama on the country's single biggest issue — the economy.
"He created a deeper recession, and delayed the recovery," Romney said Saturday, previewing his campaign message before Republicans in this influential early nominating state.
"The consequence is soaring numbers of Americans enduring unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies. This is the Obama Misery Index, and it is at a record high."
"It's going to take more than new rhetoric to put Americans back to work — it's going to take a new president," said the former businessman and Massachusetts governor, essentially offering himself up as the best — if not only — solution.
But will GOP primary voters buy it?
Specifically, will this argument from the once-failed GOP presidential candidate be strong enough to convince conservatives who dominate the nominating contests that they should overlook their unease about him: his signing of a Massachusetts health care law similar to Obama's unpopular nationwide one, as well as his reversals on social issues and his Mormonism?
This is the central question of Romney's all-but-announced second White House bid.
An answer will come over the next year.
He's virtually certain to enter the race this spring, though campaign signs posted along the road leading to the New Hampshire hotel where he spoke this weekend may have gotten a bit ahead of him. They said "Mitt Romney for President" and suggested this theme: "True Strength for America's Future."
He and his aides insisted they were leftovers from 2008.
Never mind the other signs: Romney lapel pins in the shape of New Hampshire. They dotted the audience, and at least one adviser was overheard all but confirming to attendees that Romney was running again.
In his first campaign, Romney struggled to explain to Republicans why he would give the party the best chance to win the White House.
He never settled on a single campaign message. He embraced social issues even though financial ones were his forte. He picked big and small fights with opponents — specifically front-runner John McCain. He floundered as he tried to convince voters that he was a hard-core conservative, even though he had governed a Democratic bastion as a moderate.
Today, Romney is a different candidate in a different time.
Back then, he was little known and fighting to be heard. Now, he weighs in on the national debate only when he has something to say. He's the closest thing to a front-runner in a GOP field that lacks one.
It's a blessing that he's universally known. It may be a curse because GOP opponents are likely to come after him hard.
In the last race, the top issues — war and immigration — didn't play to his strengths. Now, stubbornly high unemployment, slow economic growth and budget-busting deficits are voters' chief worries.
It's no doubt a much better fit for this successful businessman who co-founded a venture capital firm and helped rescue failing companies.
In the 2008 campaign, Romney stood out by relentlessly attacking McCain and other opponents. He struggled to outline what he stood for and how he would govern. Now, he's focused on assailing Obama on the economy as well as selling his own credentials and ideas for long-term prosperity. In doing so, he's drawing a more subtle contrast with his GOP challengers.
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