Election 2012: Mitt Romney Readies a Different Kind of Campaign

Since finishing behind John McCain in 2008, Mitt Romney has been quietly preparing for his second chance. Can the multimillionaire build a team and find a message for 2012?

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Meanwhile, Romney brought his skills as a turnaround artist to his own operation. In 2009 he sold two of his four multimillion-dollar homes, which had become political liabilities in this age of downsizing. At his 11-acre (4.5 hectare) estate in Wolfeboro, N.H., he continued to host brainstorming salons with political strategists, campaign donors and party insiders, discussing the state of the nation and trying to work out just what to do next. Even the story behind his story became a selling point. He commissioned a ghostwriter to help him with a book, but after receiving an opening chapter, he decided to write it himself. No Apology: The Case for American Greatness is focused largely on foreign policy — the issue set that, more than anything else, lost him the 2008 primaries to McCain. He reshuffled his advisers, promoting his old communications director, Matt Rhoades, and cutting ties with some of the consultants who had contributed to the divisions and confusion last time. In recent weeks, he resigned from the board of Marriott International and traveled to Afghanistan to both meet President Hamid Karzai and, as his office described it, "train Afghans" in issues like "leadership, public service, economic opportunity and democratic participation." Romney dodges any admission of personal political motivation and was the only major candidate-in-waiting to decline to be interviewed for a recent Fox News 2012 election special.

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Aides say Romney long ago decided that his next campaign would start later, run smaller and run smarter, particularly when it comes to managing expectations. "Last time, Mitt's campaign was like IBM. This time, if he runs, he wants to be like JetBlue," says Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's longtime adviser and spokesman. "Which is to say, more nimble and more efficient and ready to respond." Romney will likely benefit from a new primary calendar that limits the number of states that can hold winner-take-all contests before April 2012. That technical change will allow a candidate like Romney potentially to survive losses to populists like Sarah Palin in Iowa or Mike Huckabee in South Carolina. "Whereas before, Governor Romney had to play in the first handful of states," says Tim Albrecht, Romney's 2008 Iowa spokesman, who does not plan to reprise the role, "he has the ability to play in 30 or 40 states."

But then this is not the first time Romney has looked the part. And as his supporters well know, looks alone are not enough. "In any normal situation, he would be the winner hands down, following a few primary skirmishes, because he is the heir apparent," explains David Carney, a New Hampshire Republican strategist who has ties to Governor Rick Perry of Texas but so far remains uncommitted in 2012. "But we are probably in a new environment where that is not going to be worth very much."

The most damning indictment of Romney's 2008 campaign came from his archrival, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who began telling a story to reporters a few weeks before he beat Romney in the Iowa caucuses. It was the tale of a wealthy man who opened a dog-food company, hiring the best nutritionist, the best marketing people and the best sales force in the industry. When the product was released to great fanfare, sales flagged, so the wealthy man gathered his staff and demanded to know why. "There was a long silence," Huckabee would say. "And then finally somebody in the back of the room said, 'Because the dogs won't eat the darn stuff, sir.' "

Throughout the 2008 cycle, Romney often appeared to approach the business of politics too much like a business — outmaneuvering opponents with positioning and polish when it was human factors like empathy and approachability that made up voters' minds. He too frequently seemed to take expedient positions, shifting on gay marriage, gun control and abortion at the most politically advantageous times; sunk huge sums into winning just about every early straw poll east of the Missouri River; and deployed his army of strapping sons and their spouses to blitz Iowa. He was dogged in delivering the political prose but struggled with the poetry. When people left his events, some campaign veterans will now admit, too often he had not closed the deal.

The test in 2012 is likely to be even more rigorous. "We are kind of in the era of true believers," says one prominent 2008 Romney supporter, who, like many in Romney's extended circle, asked to not be identified. "He will still need to overcome 'Is he genuine?'"

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