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Associated Press
Mitt Romney speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition annual leadership meeting, Saturday, April 2, 2011, in Las Vegas.

SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney announced Monday he is forming an exploratory committee for a 2012 presidential run, a key step towards what would be his second White House bid.

"I think Romney has decided, 'Let's have at it, let's get in there,''' said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a longtime Romney supporter.

Romney is widely seen as the frontrunner for the 2012 GOP nomination after losing to Arizona Sen. John McCain in the 2008 primaries. Having an exploratory committee allows him to raise money directly for another presidential bid.

That no doubt will include plenty of money from Utah, where fellow Mormons and fans of Romney's running of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City contributed millions of dollars to his 2008 campaign.

"He's got a great base of support here," said John Miller, a Salt Lake financier and a top fundraiser for Romney is 2008. "Utah played a significant role in the financial side of the equation. I expect we'll do a similar role this time."

So far, the only other major GOP contender to establish an exploratory committee is former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, has already announced he's seeking a second term.

But there's a long list of potential Republican candidates, including Rep. Michele Bachman, R-Minn., a tea party favorite; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; and even developer Donald Trump, star of TV's "Celebrity Apprentice."

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who steps down later this month as U.S. ambassador to China, is also weighing a run for president, a prospect that is attracting increasing national attention.

"Right now, Romney probably feels pretty good about how the Republican primary is shaping up because he looks like the grown-up in the room," said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Wilson noted that Romney's announcement comes as the nation's attention is focused on the nation's growing deficit. A showdown between Republicans and Democrats over cutting federal spending nearly shut down the government last week.

"He perceives his strength to be economic policy," Wilson said of Romney. "A public discussion about budgets and about fiscal priorities works pretty well for him"

Indeed, Romney emphasized his business experience in a video posted to his website, mittromney.com, announcing his exploratory committee early Monday afternoon.

Romney said in the video, filmed on the University of New Hampshire campus, that Obama's policies have failed because he and his advisers have never worked in the private sector.

"That's where I spent my entire career," said Romney, dressed casually in a plaid shirt without a tie and a dark jacket. He said he used the skills he'd learned in 25 years of business and as governor of Massachusetts.

"I've become convinced that America has been put on a dangerous course by Washington politicians and it's become even worse during the past two years," he said. "But I'm also convinced that with able leadership, America's best days are still ahead."

The short announcement ends with a plea for volunteers and financial donations. "This effort isn't about a person," Romney said. "It's about the cause of America freedom and greatness."

There was no mention of the sweeping state health care initiative Romney championed as Massachusetts governor, which has since been criticized as a model for Obama's controversial federal health care legislation.

"This time around, the health-care issue is a bigger weakness for him than his faith," Wilson said, a reference to the anti-Mormon beliefs of some evangelical Christians in Iowa and elsewhere that cost Romney conservative votes in 2008.

Nathan Oman, a professor at William & Mary Law School in Virginia and a Mormon who grew up in Salt Lake, said voters will be more focused on economics than social issues in the 2012 race.

"He's much more compelling as a pro-business, fiscally responsible guy than a cultural warrior," Oman said. "It's just a different political environment."  

Romney's choice of New Hampshire as the location for his video appears to reflect another shift from his past campaign that emphasized Iowa, traditionally the first test for presidential candidates.

After losing Iowa to Baptist preacher and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 despite a big investment of time and money, Romney seems to be setting his sights this time on an early victory in New Hampshire instead.

"Here in Iowa, it seems like he's less interested," said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. "It may be that Gov. Romney really doesn't see he's going to win over some of the social conservatives."