He is hoping that Republican voters notice more than just a change in the weather.
The Mitt Romney who visited Iowa on Wednesday for the first time since beginning his front-running presidential campaign is a different Mitt Romney from the one who left, scorned, in 2008 after exhausting his time and money for a second-place finish.
He is betting that he has learned all the right lessons from 2008 — and not just in Iowa. The retooled Romney is more disciplined, more confident in his policy views and seemingly more relaxed. His focus is nearly always on the economy, and his style tends toward Gap jeans and open-collared shirts with rolled-up sleeves over the starched shirts and neckties of the last go-round.
And here in Iowa, Romney is setting low expectations by skipping Saturday’s straw poll and instead waging a stealth effort designed to campaign enough not to ignore the state while not appearing to be competing too hard.
“There were the inevitable ‘lessons learned,’ ” Romney writes in his book, “No Apology,” of his 2008 run. “My dad, George Romney, used to say of his 1968 presidential campaign that ‘it was like a miniskirt . . . short and revealing.’ Mine was a little longer, but just as revealing.”
The question for Romney is whether what he found revealing about 2008 is on the mark for 2012. Will Republican voters hungry for bold leaders who govern from the gut rally behind a methodical and cautious front-runner?
“Romney clearly has a playbook, and he’s not diverting from the game plan. No audibles at the line of scrimmage this time. And it’s working well so far,” said Mark McKinnon, a longtime GOP presidential strategist who is neutral in the 2012 contest.
“It’s a safe strategy,” he continued. “But it may not be a safe election.”
Even as Romney leads the polls and has monetary and organizational advantages over his opponents, there is little evidence that he has expanded his support base far beyond where he left off in 2008. Early buzz has eluded him, instead centering on other candidates, such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a likely contender — and even non-candidates, such as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.
As the 2012 contest moves into a new phase this week, Romney, who has avoided direct engagements with his Republican rivals, is preparing to face an aggressive onslaught during a debate Thursday from the likes of Bachmann and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.
‘Wandering the desert’
After his 2008 loss, Romney gathered his inner circle and his family to distill the lessons of his campaign. They emerged convinced that if he ran again, he would be a more authentic candidate and have a smarter strategy.