In the past month, Mitt Romney has delivered a widely panned defense of the health care legislation he signed as governor of Massachusetts and been the constant target of national Democratic attacks — and also has seen his poll numbers rise and his status solidified as the best-positioned candidate to win the GOP nomination and take on President Obama.
The latest data came Wednesday from a Quinnipiac University Poll that shows Mr. Romney running nearest to Mr. Obama. An ABC-Washington Post survey on Tuesday found Mr. Romney topping Mr. Obama, 49 percent to 46 percent, among registered voters. Both surveys showed the former governor at the top of the crowded field of GOP candidates vying for the chance to run.
Some analysts said Mr. Romney’s staying power is a sign of the groundwork he has laid since 2008 and his strength on the key economic issues likely to dominate next year’s election, while others said he is just cruising on his near-universal name recognition. His strong showing, skeptics assert, says more about Mr. Obama’s vulnerabilities than about the GOP field.
”They know [Mr. Romney’s] name. They don’t know anything about him,” said Republican strategist Michael McKenna. “What that survey question really is is: ‘Would you rather have somebody other than the current occupant?’“
Mr. Romney is a second-time candidate, running after his failed 2008 bid for the Republican nomination, and essentially has been in campaign mode for more than five years. He has polish and campaign heft, and most voters have an opinion about him, which leaves him in better stead than rivals who are still introducing themselves even to the GOP’s primary electorate.
In addition, Mr. Romney’s political action committee, Free and Strong America, has doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates across the country, earning him the good will of the midlevel leaders who are key to primaries and caucuses.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said Mr. Romney is benefiting from the groundwork and from the issues that are important to voters right now.
“Besides Romney announcing he was running just last week, he has set up a mature and active campaign over the past year. Also, when the top issue is the poor economy, it lowers the impact around the political liability of the health care issue that Romney has been dealing with,” Mr. Bonjean said.
Exercising his front-runner status, Mr. Romney announced Thursday evening he would not participate in any straw polls, including the traditional summertime Iowa Republican Party survey.
Straw polls are traditionally no-win affairs for leaders of the pack, serving more as a chance for lesser-known candidate to make an impact.
Mr. Romney formed an exploratory committee this year and officially announced his campaign last week in New Hampshire — though the Democratic National Committee gleefully pointed out that his kickoff event was overshadowed by the arrival in the state the same day as fellow Republican Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice-presidential candidate.
In May, he delivered a speech in Michigan defending the health care reform plan he signed into law in Massachusetts, saying it was a legitimate exercise in state experimentation envisioned by the country’s founders. He said Mr. Obama’s national health care law — which is deeply unpopular among conservative voter — was not.
Still, conservative commentators said Mr. Romney’s defense of his state’s individual mandate to purchase health insurance was a better argument for Mr. Obama’s health care law than anything the administration has done.
The Democratic National Committee has relentlessly pursued Mr. Romney, firing off about 50 attack emails over the past two weeks — an average of more than five a day for each business day.
“Mitt Romney’s been running for president since at least 2007 — longer than a presidential term,” said Brad Woodhouse, the DNC’s chief spokesman.
“Given that and his name recognition, no one should be surprised by his position in the polls. What would be a surprise is if he’d take a consistent position on a single major issue,” Mr. Woodhouse said.
Through it all, Mr. Romney has been focusing on his background as a businessman, at a time when the economy is still sluggish. With last week’s jobs report showing anemic growth, what political operatives term the “issues matrix” is playing to Mr. Romney’s strengths.
”The 2012 presidential race will be a referendum on Barack Obama and his handling of America’s economy and failure to create jobs. These are the issues voters care most about, and people know Obama has done a terrible job,” said Andrea Saul, Mr. Romney’s campaign spokeswoman. “No candidate in this race can come close to matching Mitt Romney’s 25 years of experience in the real-world economy. He is strongest where President Obama is weakest.”
History, though, suggests front-runner status might not count for much.
Four years ago, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani led the Republican field. He also led the head-to-head matchup with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and was essentially tied with Mr. Obama, the two top-tier Democrats.
By contrast, Mr. Romney at the time trailed Mr. Obama by about 16 percentage points in head-to-head polling in June 2007.
Mr. Giuliani’s campaign flamed out as he failed to compete in the early primaries, then was unable to gain traction in the later contests. Mr. Romney came in second in Iowa to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and in New Hampshire to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and eventually conceded the nomination to Mr. McCain.
This year, Mr. Romney has seen his poll numbers go up as the GOP field has slimmed. Mr. Huckabee said he won’t run again, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels took passes. Polling suggests Mr. Romney has absorbed some of their supporters.
Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, said Mr. Romney also is benefiting by comparison with other Republicans in the race, particularly among independent voters who find Mrs. Palin, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and others to be too conservative or not qualified.
“Romney is seen as more centrist and qualified by those voters, so there are a lot of independents who would vote for Obama against any other Republican, but would give their votes to Romney or at least consider doing so,” Mr. Jensen said.