Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
Former Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney is cheered by delegates Monday.

ST. PAUL, MINN. — Whether you agree with his politics, his religion or his selection of ties, whether you think he's too slick or too scripted or too smart or not smart enough or does or does not dye his hair, whether you're glad 2008 for him is over or can't wait for 2012 so he can try again, you have to say this for Willard Mitt Romney: the man can take a punch.

Here he is in the heartland, at the 2008 Republican National Convention, three days since his latest setback — losing out on the vice presidency to a woman from Alaska that John McCain had met exactly once — seven months since he bowed out of the 2008 Republican presidential primaries — assured of finishing no better than second — and 19 months since he announced his candidacy for the presidency on Valentine's Day Eve, 2007.

It's just after eight in the morning, he's just delivered speech No. 1,000 or so to a bunch of people eating bacon and eggs, he now must address the media, who haven't had their caffeine yet, and he looks like someone who's just hit his Powerball numbers.

Upbeat, forthright, jovial, unperturbed. Jimmy Buffett with a stump speech.

A golden retriever couldn't exhibit more loyalty to the party.

He hails McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as vice president. "A maverick choosing another maverick," he praises. He describes Palin as "articulate, aggressive, dynamic, poised" before he runs out of adjectives.

He says his jumping aboard the McCain Straight Talk Express — after months of trying to run it into the borrow pit — "Wasn't a leap at all. I'm very much a part of the values they (the McCain/Palin ticket) espouse."

He'll do everything he can to help get McCain elected, he promises, and illustrates this sentiment with a joke his brother-in-law e-mailed him the other day:

McCain and Barack Obama wind up tying the election. To settle the tie, it's decided they'll go to Minnesota and have a four-day ice-fishing contest, winner takes the presidency. On the first day, McCain gets 10 fish, Obama zero. On the second day, McCain gets 15 fish, Obama zero. Panicked, Obama's aides decide to spy on McCain and see if they can figure out what he's doing that's working so well.

Aides report back to Obama: He's cut a hole in the ice.

Romney laughs, a genuine laugh, before delivering the final punch line: "It goes to show that it helps to have experience."

This wasn't the tune a year ago, when Romney was ahead in the Iowa polls and McCain was an aged 71-year-old Washington insider with a temper and a mother who disparaged Romney's religion.

Before Romney raised and then spent nearly $100 million to try and get elected president, including $42 million of his own money. All nonrefundable.

Before he won 11 states, 4.7 million votes and 272 delegates, which, if you're keeping score at home, works out to a little over $150,000 out of his own pocket per delegate.

Before he dropped out of the race when it was mathematically impossible for him to prevail and went on to help McCain raise another $20 million for his campaign, only to ultimately be snubbed as a vice president choice.

I don't care who you are, that's got to hurt. Those are a lot of defeats to absorb in a row.

Good men have trashed clubhouses and hotel rooms — and stopped talking to the dreaded press — when losing less.

But not Mitt Romney. In many ways, he looks fresher than he looked 19 months ago. Running has been good for him.

He refuses to make alibis. He doesn't blame bigotry due to his religion, or negative campaigning by his opponents.

"I think John McCain's successful campaign is why he won," he says.

"I know a couple of you would like to (still) vote for me," he tells Utah's delegates to the RNC. "Please don't do that. We need to demonstrate we're all behind the team."

In a race where winning means absolutely everything, where there is no such thing as a silver medal, it turns out losing may be Mitt Romney's finest feat.

Lee Benson is filing columns daily from the Republican National Convention. You can e-mail him at [email protected].