Compared with the feeling-his-way campaign of 2008, Romney's advisers say writing his book "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness" helped him focus on the topics he cares most about and crystalized his thinking about running for president.
But there's this political reality: Romney's best chance to win the nomination rests with economic issues, and the remnants of the recession give him the chance to emphasize his business credentials. He can't let the race again be defined by cultural topics or he risks losing because many conservatives still don't trust the sincerity of his conversions on gay rights, abortion and other issues.
His appearance Saturday night at the Carroll County Lincoln Day Dinner at a northern New Hampshire hotel both provided a template for his upcoming campaign and showed how Romney has evolved as a candidate.
Scripted to the point of coming off as stiff in his first run, Romney now is clearly more comfortable doing the retail politicking that primary voters demand. He worked the room with ease, shaking hands and chatting up well-wishers with an almost neighborly air. His tie — ever present in 2008 — was gone. His hair — always perfectly coifed — flopped over his forehead.
And he didn't seem to care.
With his wife, Ann, by his side, Romney took the stage and immediately deviated from his prepared remarks to share a few lighthearted stories about living part time in the state. He reminisced about his last campaign in New Hampshire. He noted that his wife was trying to push him to run.
"When we were driving in here, we saw these old Romney for president signs ... I don't know where they came from," Romney said. Then he joked that his wife may have pulled them from his garage.
Then he launched into what can only be described the central case for a candidacy.
"I like President Obama, but he doesn't have a clue how jobs are created," Romney said, noting that Obama has never run a business.
Romney reminded his audience that he spent much of his life in the private sector. "I know how jobs are created and how jobs are lost. I have helped guide more than one enterprise that was in crisis."
He said "turnarounds work when the leader focuses on what's most important." He then tried to make the case that Obama did just the opposite.
"He delegated the jobs crisis to (Democratic congressional leaders) Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and he went to work on his own liberal priorities," including a climate change plan and a health care overhaul. "The next president must focus on what's most important: getting Americans back to work."
Romney explained what he said he stood for: lower taxes for companies, a smaller bureaucracy, a ceiling on federal spending. He called for repealing the health overhaul that conservatives view as a symbol of costly government overreach.
The issue is an obvious political vulnerability for Romney; Obama's law was modeled in some ways after one that Romney signed in Massachusetts.
Romney addressed it head-on with an argument voters are likely to hear often.
"Our experiment wasn't perfect — some things worked, some didn't, and some things I'd change," he said. But, he added, "One thing I would never do is to usurp the constitutional power of states with a one-size-fits-all federal takeover."
It's not his only hurdle.
Many conservatives, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina, still view his religion skeptically and don't trust him on social issues. That helps explain why his focus is heavily on New Hampshire — where fiscal conservatives are the key electorate — as he gears up for an economy-focused campaign.
With primary voting set for February 2012 if not earlier, Romney has less than a year to make his case — now that he has one.
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