Is Romney Ready for the Tough Race Ahead?

As the frontrunner, he's been able to stay above the fray. That will soon change, and the former governor will have to mix it up and weather attacks from competitors

Mitt Romney speaking near plane - AP Photo:Charlie Neibergall - banner.jpg

If the Republican presidential nomination is Mitt Romney's to lose, as the current conventional wisdom says, will today be the day he starts?

The former Massachusetts governor, veteran capitalist, and Salt Lake City Olympics repairman has long sat atop the GOP field, battle-tested and polished, the kind of paradigmatic, done-his-time candidate to whom GOP primary voters have traditionally given the nod. His front-runner status, cemented in part by his acknowledged fundraising chops--which he's about to enhance with a busy schedule of stops designed to raise still more campaign cash--has been carefully honed by the strategic decision to dodge the daily fracas of the campaign's early stages.

Today, all that changes.

In rural Stratham, N.H., Romney will make his long-assumed presidential ambitions official and shed his above-the-battle status--a luxury afforded him by the name recognition and political apparatus he retained and refined after his unsuccessful 2008 bid for the GOP presidential nomination.

Romney's presumed front-runner status kept him from straying into the quicksands that have slowed some of his rivals in recent months. Romney didn't need to yell and scream on Libya because he was already in the conversation. Donald Trump? Not Mitt Romney's business. Last month's debate in South Carolina featuring mostly minor candidates offered no enticement.

"If you had told me six months ago that he would be the sole, conventional-wisdom frontrunner at this point, I would've been sort of surprised," said one Romney adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity to offer candid analysis. "I think the biggest thing he's done right is hold off on engaging in the fisticuffs."

Now, with his campaign announcement sited on the farm of Doug Scamman, a former speaker of the New Hampshire House, in the state Romney vitally needs to win, some of that political aloofness will fall away as Romney plunges into the messy GOP fray.

Michigan, where Romney's father, George, was governor from 1963 to 1969, was the venue for his February 2007 launch at Dearborn's Henry Ford Museum. Today's rollout, on a Granite State farm, will be a decidedly more stripped-down and less expensive affair. Romney attended last year's annual chili cookout, said senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, describing the Scammans as "salt-of-the-Earth Republicans."

"It's bucolic, it's typical New Hampshire," Fehrnstrom said.

Romney advisers acknowledge that he has three primary areas that could open him to weakness: his signature on a 2006 Massachusetts health care reform law with an insurance-coverage mandate, his reputation for altering stances on issues from gay rights to his hunting credentials, and his Mormonism, a faith that bothers particularly conservative evangelical voters.

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Jim O'Sullivan is chief analyst for National Journal Daily.

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