- 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.

With his wife, Ann, by his side, Mr. Romney took the stage and immediately deviated from his prepared remarks to share a few lighthearted stories about living part time in the state.

“When we were driving in here, we saw these old Romney for president signs … I don’t know where they came from,” Mr. Romney said. Then he joked that his wife may have pulled them from his garage.

Mr. 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 explained that he stood for: lower taxes for companies, a smaller bureaucracy, a ceiling on federal spending. He called for repealing the health care overhaul that conservatives view as a symbol of costly government overreach.

The issue is an obvious political vulnerability for Mr. Romney; Mr. Obama’s law was modeled in some ways after one that Mr. Romney signed in Massachusetts.

He 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.

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