- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2011

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

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

“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?

An answer will come over the next year.

In his unsuccessful 2008 campaign, Mr. Romney struggled to explain to Republicans why he would give the party the best chance to win.

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 Sen. John McCain. He floundered as he tried to persuade voters that he was a hard-core conservative, even though he had governed a Democratic bastion as a moderate.

Today, Mr. 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.

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, Mr. Romney stood out by relentlessly attacking Mr. McCain and other opponents. Now, he’s focused on assailing Mr. Obama on the economy.

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 Mr. Romney has evolved as a candidate.

Scripted to the point of coming off as stiff in his first run, Mr. 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.

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