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."
Romney spent a quarter century in the private sector after earning dual degrees from Harvard's law and business schools. First a top official for the business consulting company Bain & Company, Inc., he later founded the investment firm Bain Capital, where he largely made his personal fortune and last drew a regular paycheck.
He left the private sector for good in 1999, when he took over the financially troubled winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He wasn't paid for three years, having vowed not to take a paycheck unless the games finished in the black. They ultimately did, and his campaign says Romney was compensated after their conclusion.
The transition into the political world had begun with the 1994 Senate race but was cemented by the 2002 governor's race, which he won, serving one term from January 2003 to January 2007. Romney began positioning himself for a run at the White House before the end of his term and formally announced his candidacy a month after leaving the governor's office.
Since 1993, he has raised more campaign dollars than the vast majority of the nation's politicians — including his rivals in the Republican presidential primary — and used that money to build a network of support in key early voting states. Even putting his gubernatorial race aside, public records show that Romney raised $134 million between his 1994 Senate race, 2008 presidential bid, his Free and Strong political action committee and current presidential campaign. That number will grow once Romney's campaign releases updated figures for the fundraising quarter that ends Friday.
Romney has used his campaign accounts to make friends in the political world.
Even though he wasn't on any ballot in 2010, his political action committee spent $8.7 million over the last two years by sending cash to state and local Republican candidates in key states on the presidential primary calendar. In that two-year period, no politician's political action committee raised more money than Romney, who was second only to South Carolina conservative powerhouse Sen. Jim DeMint, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Romney's political history isn't lost on skeptical conservatives.
Said Ana Puig, the Pennsylvania-based co-chair of the Kitchen Table Patriots: "Perhaps he thinks he can now pretend not to have been a part of the system for so many years in order to get tea partiers on his boat."