Once more, Willard Mitt Romney looked great, and not just because of his rugged jawline, which showed no sign of slackening, or his thick blow-dry, which had gone more gray in just the right places. No, there was something else, a feeling in the air as he moved through his adoptive state where else? New Hampshire which so harshly rebuked him in the 2008 Republican primary by choosing John McCain.
It was four days before the 2010 midterm elections, and Romney was making the Granite State rounds. People applauded him for just walking into a room. At the neocolonial estate of one wealthy contributor, the former Massachusetts governor glided from handshake to handshake, delighted to see so many he called "old friends," while the new ones lined up to snap pictures. "This is New Hampshire," Romney remarked in the childlike way of a candidate at work, who often must say something and nothing at the same time. "This is just an extraordinary place."
This was also Romney in his element, or at least that's the hope of many in his inner circle. As the toll of the opening bell for the 2012 presidential campaign nears, Romney finds himself as the closest thing to a Republican front runner, leading the very early polls, well positioned as a business ace in an age of unemployment, with an unmatched fundraising base and a clear shot at capitalizing on the GOP's habit of nominating the guy who lost last time. He has retooled his political operation and honed his message. What no one knows for sure, however, is whether he has gotten any better at getting people to actually vote for him.
But we are jumping ahead of ourselves. Romney is, if you can believe his aides, not officially running for anything. Rather, he arrived at this fundraiser, the last stop on a 32-state, 129-event coach-class barnstorm of the country, having quietly given away more than $1 million in 2010 while other potential 2012 contenders spent time trading sound bites on Fox News. His aides claimed this was the final act of an altruistic epic that began just weeks after Barack Obama won the White House. Romney gathered his team at his home outside Boston to share a scrapbook filled with thank-you notes from people he met on the trail. "We literally passed it around like the gold telephone in The Godfather," remembers one participant.
In Romneyland, the scrapbook is very important, because it's used by aides to disprove the charge that Romney has been running nonstop since 2008. As they tell it, it was all those cards and letters that convinced Romney, who spent $44 million of his own money in 2008, to write another book and hit the road. After all, no one likes a permanent candidate, especially one with millions to spare. "I don't think he intended to run again," insists Stuart Stevens, a former strategist for George W. Bush and John McCain who has become one of Romney's top political advisers. "If things were going well in the country, I really do not think he would be running. I can almost guarantee you that."
It's more accurate to say that Romney's 2008 effort never really closed up shop. A close reading of his Federal Election Commission reports shows the careful bequests to those who might be helpful to his presidential ambitions. He also has kept up a complex network of state-level political-action committees, which have allowed him to legally fund his movements around the country without triggering federal contribution limits. In recent months, Romney's intentions have become so clear that it's almost comical to deny them. (In the final week before the midterms, he visited Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire.) At his first two events in New Hampshire, his former state-level campaign strategists hovered in the back of the room, apparently ready to dive in. Soon after, supporters got the Romney-family Christmas card, which pictured the candidate with his wife and 14 of his 15 grandchildren, one of whom seemed to be crying. "Guess which grandchild heard that Papa might run again?" ran the caption.