Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is stepping back into the public spotlight after spending two years behind the scenes laying the groundwork for a second presidential campaign.
The Republican delivered a blistering critique of President Barack Obama in a speech last week in Washington to conservative activists. Next week he's scheduled a network TV blitz and the start of a 19-state tour promoting his new book, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness."
Romney has shifted from social issues that brought accusations of flip-flopping and undermined his 2008 White House bid. With unemployment hovering around 10 percent, his new focus is on economic themes and fix-it skills he claims as a former businessman. That plays to what some observers believe would be his strength in a second race.
They could also distinguish him from potential rivals such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who enjoys widespread grass-roots support but doubts about her mastery of policy, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who, like Romney was four years ago, is untested on the national political scene.
"President (Barack) Obama instituted the most anti-growth, anti-investment, anti-jobs measures we've seen in our lifetimes. He called his agenda ambitious. I call it reckless," Romney told the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Romney called for lower taxes, more teacher accountability and state-by-state instead of national health insurance expansion, similar to the nearly universal coverage plan he instituted in Massachusetts in 2006.
"There's much more on our positive, intellectually rigorous conservative agenda," he said. "Not all of it is popular. But the American people have shown that they are ready for truth to trump hope. The truth is that government is not the solution to all our problems."
Aides deny any conscious effort to re-brand Romney. They say his 2008 campaign failed largely because Romney either involved himself in or got dragged into petty disputes and hot-button social issues crucial to some elements of the GOP's base.
Now, with one presidential campaign behind him, and no obvious successor to the party's 2008 nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Romney has a better chance of controlling his agenda, aides say. That agenda got a test drive in January, when a team of Romney advisers helped Republican Scott Brown win Democrat Edward M. Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat by focusing on public doubts about government spending and the handling of terrorists.
One Republican thinks it's a smart strategy.
"At the end of the day, I don't think Mitt was as identified with issues related to job creation and economic growth as he should have been," said former Sen. John Sununu from politically pivotal New Hampshire. "That's a very valuable and important perspective to have in Washington, because it's in such short supply."
'Who is our leader?'
Former Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, another important electoral state, said a second Romney campaign would benefit from the experience gained in the first, as well as a sense within GOP circles that Romney has paid his dues, showed grace in losing by earnestly supporting McCain and has a fitting resume for the times.
"There is a tremendous hunger to answer the question, 'Who is our leader?'" said Martinez, whose endorsement of McCain undercut Romney's chances in Florida in 2008. "People are impatient because there's this sense you have to wait for the next cycle to begin before they emerge. I think people think of him now as that 'next person.'"
After quitting the 2008 race in another speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Romney became an active McCain surrogate and dispatched some of his top aides to help raise money and provide policy guidance to his former rival.
He also founded his "Free and Strong America" leadership PAC, a political action committee that allowed him to travel the country and dispense money to like-minded political candidates. Romney also made judicious use of the media, granting interviews when the subject appeared weighty enough.
And he threw himself into writing his book, which argues that Obama has been too ready to apologize for America's supposed shortcomings but unwilling — or unable — to build on its strengths.
Next Tuesday, he will kick off the book tour with back-to-back appearances on NBC's "Today" show, ABC's "The View," the Fox News Channel's "Hannity" program and CBS's "Late Show with David Letterman." His ensuing schedule reads like a campaign travelogue, with stops in Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida and even Toronto — where Palin recently signed copies of her own book.
Aides say Romney's recent break to attend the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, marred when he got into an altercation with a rap singer on his return flight from Canada, will be his last big vacation this year. He intends to travel the country for the remainder, promoting himself, his book and Republican candidates in this year's pivotal midterm elections.
His PAC will give him something to take along. He ended 2009 with a $1.1 million in the bank, more than the $928,000 held by Palin, or the $884,000 by Pawlenty.