By Liz Sidoti, AP National Political Writer

BARTLETT, N.H. (AP) – This time, Mitt Romney has a clear pitch: I’m the strongest Republican to challenge President Barack Obama on the country’s single biggest issue — the economy.

“He created a deeper recession, and delayed the recovery,” Romney said Saturday, previewing his campaign message before Republicans in this influential early nominating state.

“The consequence is soaring numbers of Americans enduring unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies. This is the Obama Misery Index, and it is at a record high.”

WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Kim Tunnicliffe reports.

“It’s going to take more than new rhetoric to put Americans back to work — it’s going to take a new president,” said the former businessman and Massachusetts governor, essentially offering himself up as the best — if not only — solution.

But will GOP primary voters buy it?

Specifically, will this argument from the once-failed GOP presidential candidate be strong enough to convince conservatives who dominate the nominating contests that they should overlook their unease about him: his signing of a Massachusetts health care law similar to Obama’s unpopular nationwide one, as well as his reversals on social issues and his Mormonism?

This is the central question of Romney’s all-but-announced second White House bid.

An answer will come over the next year.

He’s virtually certain to enter the race this spring, though campaign signs posted along the road leading to the New Hampshire hotel where he spoke this weekend may have gotten a bit ahead of him. They said “Mitt Romney for President” and suggested this theme: “True Strength for America’s Future.”

He and his aides insisted they were leftovers from 2008.

Never mind the other signs: Romney lapel pins in the shape of New Hampshire. They dotted the audience, and at least one adviser was overheard all but confirming to attendees that Romney was running again.

In his first campaign, Romney struggled to explain to Republicans why he would give the party the best chance to win the White House.

He never settled on a single campaign message. He embraced social issues even though financial ones were his forte. He picked big and small fights with opponents — specifically front-runner John McCain. He floundered as he tried to convince voters that he was a hard-core conservative, even though he had governed a Democratic bastion as a moderate.

Today, Romney is a different candidate in a different time.

Back then, he was little known and fighting to be heard. Now, he weighs in on the national debate only when he has something to say. He’s the closest thing to a front-runner in a GOP field that lacks one.

It’s a blessing that he’s universally known. It may be a curse because GOP opponents are likely to come after him hard.

In the last race, the top issues — war and immigration — didn’t play to his strengths. Now, stubbornly high unemployment, slow economic growth and budget-busting deficits are voters’ chief worries.

It’s no doubt a much better fit for this successful businessman who co-founded a venture capital firm and helped rescue failing companies.

In the 2008 campaign, Romney stood out by relentlessly attacking McCain and other opponents. He struggled to outline what he stood for and how he would govern. Now, he’s focused on assailing Obama on the economy as well as selling his own credentials and ideas for long-term prosperity. In doing so, he’s drawing a more subtle contrast with his GOP challengers.

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.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Comments (11)
  1. Ellen says:

    I never really like Romney, but from what he’s been saying it sounds like he’s got it over Obama. Just hope he doesn’t make Sarah Palin his VP, a decision that John McCain himself now must be regretting.

  2. edwal says:

    he;s an idiot bushes failed policies led to the resession

    1. roudydowdy says:

      here here

  3. emom says:

    Oh please say it isnt so,, this PRETTY BOY, it the worse ,, he messed up this state, you want him to mess up the country , worse that it is already,,, oh it would be like voting for duval,,, please dont vote for him,,,,, I know we dont have much choice, but those that remember what he did in this state should not vote for him

    1. kasser says:

      Emom, at least he has run something more than a community outreach program in Chicago

  4. Taxpayer says:

    Where is he from anyway, is it New hampshire, Utah, Michigan or Mass

    1. roudydowdy says:

      He’s handsome, flexible on issues and I think he is a credit to his home planet. (wherever that is).

  5. Cynic says:

    I would rather hear him say ” I think I would be a good President for these reasons”
    Don’t tell me how bad the other guy is.

  6. DStein says:

    My dog has it over Obama.

  7. CEO says:

    Ellen, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about anyone picking Sarah Palin as VP again. Her legitimacy as a national candidate is over…..wait, I take that back, she’s NEVER been a legitimate national candidate. What was John McCain thinking?

    The Republicans better come up with someone solid. If they do, it should be pretty easy to send Barry Obama back to Chicago to join his buddy Rahm. I’d rather see Romney take the nomination than a guy like Huckabee….who seems to be leading in some polls. The good news is Huckabee can’t seem to get an organization and a ground game together, nor can he seem to raise the BILLION dollars it’s going to take to run for President this time around.

    Meanwhile, Obama couldn’t turn the economy around and we didn’t see signs of hope until the Republicans took back the House from that wacko Pelosi. Still, Obama has buried us in so much debt without any meaningful results that he’s almost unelectable at this point. He’s even looks weak, unprepared and waffling when it comes to the recent events in the Middle East. It’s pretty sad when even France is doing more militarily to address the Libyan threat than we are!

    There there’s all those campaign promises he’s broken. GITMOM is still open. We still have troops in Iraq. He’s escalated the situation in Afghanistan, yet we still seem to be floundering there. And he still can bring himself to call an Islamic terrorist and Islamic terrorist. What a loser.

    Not to mention the price of gas has doubled at the pump since Obama took office. He’ll pay a price for that as well. Especially when he’s the one responsible for shutting down oil production in the Gulf of Mexico for months making us MORE DEPENDENT ON FOREIGN OIL! Home foreclosures are still at record highs. And we have more people on welfare and food stamps that at any other time in our history. Those aren’t the sorts of accomplishments that get a loser like Obama reelected.

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