- Associated Press - Monday, April 11, 2011

Republican Mitt Romney took the first official steps toward a second presidential bid Monday, telling supporters he had formed an exploratory committee to begin a White House campaign in 2012.

The former Massachusetts governor, who has been planning a second run since losing the Republican nomination in 2008, focused in his announcement on the economy and what he described as President Obama’s failed policies.

“It is time that we put America back on a course of greatness, with a growing economy, good jobs and fiscal discipline in Washington,” Mr. Romney said in a video posted on his website, on Facebook and on Twitter.

He criticized Mr. Obama’s stewardship of the economy and offered a preview of his expected campaign theme: Mr. Romney is a proven business executive while Mr. Obama remains unqualified to lead.

“Across the nation, over 20 million Americans still can’t find a job or have given up looking,” Mr. Romney said.

“How has this happened in the nation that leads the world in innovation and productivity? The answer is that President Obama’s policies have failed. He and virtually all the people around him have never worked in the real economy.”

But the upbeat 2 1/2-minute message carefully avoided any mention of health care. Mr. Romney’s health care policies as Massachusetts governor - and their close resemblance to the key reforms in President Obama’s health care law - are seen by many as the candidate’s biggest hurdle in the upcoming GOP primary contest.

Mr. Romney, a businessman who oversaw Salt Lake City’s Winter Olympics in 2002, has lined up donors, staff and advisers for his second presidential bid. He lost the GOP nomination to Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008.

Mr. Romney’s strengths are substantial: He is well-known and an experienced campaigner. He has a personal fortune and an existing network of donors. He has a businessman’s background and a record of turning around failing enterprises in a time of economic turmoil.

But his challenges are big, too. In addition to the health care question, he also must overcome a record of changing positions on social issues, shifts that have left conservatives questioning his sincerity. His Mormon religion also raises question marks with some skeptical voters.

He Is the closest thing to a front-runner in a GOP field that lacks a dominant candidate so far, and Democrats already are taking their shots at him.

“The truth is, the people of New Hampshire may never know who the real Mitt Romney is because it’s not at all clear that he does,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley in a statement. “Mitt Romney just wants to be president - plain and simple - and he’ll take any position or say anything to get there.”

Mr. Romney, a former venture capitalist, invested more than $40 million of his own money into the 2008 race and counted on early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire that never materialized. He tried to run to the right of the pack but couldn’t persuade GOP primary voters to overlook his past positions on social issues including abortion and gay rights.

In his announcement video, recorded Monday at the University of New Hampshire, he underscored what is expected to be his overarching campaign theme.

“From my vantage point in business and in government, I have become convinced that America has been put on a dangerous course by Washington politicians, and it has become even worse during the last two years,” Mr. Romney said. “But I am also convinced that with able leadership, America’s best days are still ahead.”

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