Cheryl Senter, Associated Press
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mitt Romney is casting himself as a one-term governor who simply sampled politics in Massachusetts before escaping back to the business world.
"I spent my life in the private sector, not in government. I only spent four years as a governor. I didn't inhale," he said recently.
But the notion that the GOP presidential candidate is an outsider conflicts with the reality of his lengthy political resume: He has run for higher office four separate times, dating back to an unsuccessful Senate run in 1994. Since then he has crafted a political network, raised mountains of campaign cash and largely focused on life in the public sector. He's essentially been pursuing the presidency full time since leaving the governor's office almost five years ago.
And, although he emphasizes his business background as just what the economically ailing country needs, Romney has not held a private-sector job with a regular paycheck in more than a decade.
"I don't know how you define a professional politician, but running for office off and on for two decades seems to qualify," Obama's chief political adviser, David Axelrod, told The Associated Press this week, underscoring the vulnerability Romney's pitch carries.
The gulf between how Romney portrays himself and his actual resume threatens to exacerbate criticism that he is a political opportunist who will say and do anything to get elected — just as top rival Rick Perry's campaign is working to paint him as a disingenuous flip-flopper with no core beliefs. Arizona Sen. John McCain successfully did that during Romney's first presidential race in 2008, and Romney has never been able to shake that image.
Still, Romney's campaign is aggressively pushing the outsider persona as he works to both court a conservative, tea party-infused GOP electorate that's had it with Washington insiders and differentiate himself from Perry, who has spent most of his adult life in politics. Romney's advisers seemingly are betting that voters scared about the precarious state of the country will look past the details and embrace Romney's message that he's a businessman who knows how to get the economy moving again.
"He's not someone who served a day in Washington. He's not someone who's held public office for a prolonged period of time. He's an outsider," said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. "He's someone who has not made his living in the public sector. He would bring a fresh outlook and new experience to Washington."
A look at the political environment explains why Romney is emphasizing the business part of his resume and casting himself as an outsider. The country's economy is in shambles, and politicians in Washington haven't been able to agree on solutions to fix it. The tea party movement is shaping the GOP race and eagerly dumped political insiders in favor of fresh faces during last fall's Republican congressional primary elections. And the general public's opinions about Washington politicians have fallen to record lows in recent months. Polls show they are fed up with both parties and the usual politics.
Across the country, tea party activists and Democrats alike bristle at the suggestion that Romney is a true outsider, and they say that Romney's claim to that mantle underscores the former governor's struggle with authenticity.
"Personally, I don't see how Romney can consider himself as the outsider candidate in this race. He might not have held many political offices, but he certainly is a politician," said Joel Davis III, an Ohio business owner who serves as director of the tea party ally, We the People of Ohio Valley.
In Florida, Thomas J. Gaitens, the co-founder of the Tampa Tea Party, argued that grassroots activists simply don't believe Romney's outsider claims, saying: "His systemic advantages from prior national exposure and his having built statewide campaign apparatuses' in early primary states in 2008 give Romney a clear advantage over those who have held elected office longer."
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