WASHINGTON — During a fundraiser at Lucky Strike Lanes last week, 2008 presidential contender Mitt Romney stepped up to roll his first ball down the bowling alley as newly elected Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and others cheered him on.
"Now, that felt really good," Romney recalled happily, saying he hadn't picked up a bowling ball in years before the $150-a-head event for his political action committee in Washington's Chinatown. "That doesn't mean I did that the whole evening, but I did get off to a good start."
One pin at a time, the former Massachusetts governor is laying the groundwork for a second presidential bid.
While former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin sparks more passion among many Republicans and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee conveys more folksy charm, Romney is waging the most deliberate and methodical campaign of any GOP presidential contender in at least two decades for the nomination in 2012.
After spending the first year of Barack Obama's presidency out of the public eye, Romney will launch a 19-state, three-month tour next week to promote his new book, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness." Included are speeches and appearances in the states that hold early contests in 2012, including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The book's subtitle might as well be "The Case for Mitt Romney."
At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday, Romney, 62, finished second in a straw poll to libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul but well ahead of more likely 2012 rivals.
Many establishment conservatives who once viewed Romney with suspicion because of his roots in liberal Massachusetts and his past support of abortion and gay rights have been won over, says Tony Fabrizio, a GOP pollster who ran the straw poll.
"They view him as one of the party's elder statesmen," Fabrizio says. "They see him as more thoughtful and measured than before, with nothing to prove. He's earned his spurs."
However, he adds that Romney's appeal to the emerging Tea Party movement, which views Palin as a particular hero, hasn't been tested. And "Romney-care," the health care plan he signed as governor that is cited by some Democrats as a model, could prove problematic among Republicans.
Romney's 323-page book is laced with lists and policy prescriptions — three "pillars," 14 priority points, 64 agenda items — that focus mostly on the economy and national security. He defends the Bay State health care plan and argues it differs in fundamental ways from the one congressional Democrats have drafted, noting that it didn't include a tax increase or government-run plan.
But he doesn't discuss his conversion from supporting abortion rights while running in his home state to opposing them when he sought national office. Nor does he try to explain or defend his Mormon faith, an issue in 2008.
In an interview, Romney dismisses a question about abortion. "I've got nothing new to add on that," he says. "My position on that is the same as it was in the 2008 presidential election."
And the refusal of some to support a Mormon? "There will always be some who do, and that's unfortunate," he says. But for most Americans, "when it comes to voting, and they think about who's going to lead the country, they select the person that they think will do the best job."
Through the book, Romney hopes to set a campaign agenda and settle the rap that his views reflect more political calculation than core conviction.
Questions in the 2008 campaign about his authenticity reflected "a very skillful campaign technique employed by those running against me and by the DNC (Democratic National Committee)," he says in his hotel suite before heading downstairs to address the crowd at CPAC. "I think it is entirely inaccurate. But, you know, that's politics. …
"The nice thing about having a book is, it's all there," he goes on, gesturing to stacks of the book towering on a nearby table. He has been autographing copies for supporters. "That describes exactly where I stand."
Call him Mr. Fix-It
Romney hasn't announced he will run for president again.
"At this stage, we're really just pushing that off and anticipate that we're not going to give it time for consideration until after the November elections," he says. Until then, he says his focus will be on helping to elect congressional and state candidates.
Even so, Romney has moved more clearly toward a 2012 presidential campaign than any other Republican.
He has appeared at fundraisers for local and state candidates, written a book that will serve as a campaign reference point, and maintained an organization at Free and Strong America, his political action committee. Last week, he named Matt Rhoades, a veteran of his 2008 campaign operation, as executive director.
Last year, Romney's PAC raised $2.9 million. It contributed $9,000 in "seed money" to Brown's successful campaign to fill the Senate seat of the late Democratic icon Edward Kennedy and let Brown use lists of donors to raise money. Contributions also went to local candidates in New Hampshire — for the state Legislature and for mayor in Manchester and Franklin — where the nation's first presidential primary is held.
Romney shows more gray in his hair than he did in 2008, displays an easier confidence in an interview and articulates a clearer message on the stump: Call him Mr. Fix-It.
He points to his resume as a turnaround artist for businesses — he was CEO of Bain & Co., a management consulting firm — and for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"His profile fits the needs of the times," says Romney adviser Kevin. "Many Americans see an economy that is teetering on the brink and a Washington that is out of control with spending. There doesn't seem to be any management or order, and institutions seem broken. … His whole career has been about fixing broken things, whether it's Massachusetts' budget, whether it's businesses or whether it was the Olympics."
The fact that Romney has been around the track once before is also an asset, especially in the GOP. Since 1964, when a Republican incumbent wasn't running, the party has chosen a candidate who had sought the nomination before and lost every time except once. (The exception: George W. Bush in 2000.)
In National Journal last month, nearly two-thirds of leading "Republican insiders" surveyed picked Romney as the GOP's likely nominee in 2012.
If history favors Romney, the Tea Party may not. The anti-tax, limited-government movement is generating the most energy against Obama and congressional Democrats.
Romney praises their efforts and plays down the possibility of friction with the GOP.
"Brought a lot of attention to important issues," he says of the movement. "Given us a lot of energy when we needed it most, and I believe in the final analysis will combine with other Republicans to present a far stronger challenge to the liberal dominance in Washington. …
"At this stage, we're all on the same page," he says. "We're all fighting for the same things and battling for the same candidates."
Palin has been the early hero for the Tea Party — a connection that underscores the contrasts between the two potential presidential candidates.
He is a governor's son with a businessman's mien and an MBA and law degree from Harvard. She is a self-described "hockey mom" from Alaska who has risen to prominence on her charisma and anti-establishment rhetoric. Her best-selling book, "Going Rogue," is personal and anecdotal; his new book is analytical and policy-prescriptive.
In a Gallup Poll this month, Romney led the field when Republicans and independents who lean to the GOP were asked to name "off the top of your head" which Republican they would like to see as the party's 2012 nominee. Fourteen percent mentioned Romney and 11 percent Palin, the only Republicans to draw double-digit support. Forty-two percent didn't name a preference.
The survey sample was small, and most Americans admittedly aren't focused on a hypothetical contest two years away. Still, the poll, taken Feb. 1-3, found clear contours to their support. The survey of 490 Republicans and GOP leaners has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Palin had a small edge among Republicans and Romney a big one among independents who tend to vote Republican. They drew similar support among conservatives, but he was much stronger among moderates.
Romney fared best among seniors but was not named by a single respondent under 30; among those younger voters, 2008 Republican nominee John McCain was first and Palin second.
Romney fared best in the East and West; Palin in the South. His strongest showing was among voters with a college degree or more; hers was among those with only some college education or less. He led among those with an annual income of $75,000 or more; she led among those with income of $30,000 or less. She had a slight edge among the most frequent churchgoers.
So a contest between the two might well be something of a class war. It could pit younger, more socially conservative voters for Palin against more traditional Republican voters — older, wealthier and economic conservatives — for Romney.
Bonnie Borris and her sister, Lora Smith, both "50-plus" and from Southern California, supported Romney in 2008 and emerge from his CPAC speech ready to sign up again in 2012. "He was on fire today," Borris exults, calling him a "smoother" speaker than before.
"I love Sarah Palin, but she's not ready," she said.
Peter Singleton of Menlo Park, Calif., declares himself a Palin supporter. "She's bright; she's got courage," he says, as well as a big political advantage over Romney: "I don't think he'll have the passion of the average American" the way she does, the 55-year-old lawyer says.
Craig Eldridge, 20, a biology student at the University of New Hampshire, calls Romney competent but says he has another possible favorite in mind: Scott Brown.
The gutter balls of 2008
Romney's first presidential bid had its share of gutter balls.
He spent more than a year on the road and $114 million in campaign funds — $45 million of it from his personal fortune, which was estimated at $190 million to $250 million during the 2008 campaign. Yet he finished a disappointing second in the Iowa caucuses, second in the New Hampshire primary and fourth in the South Carolina primary.
In his book, he offers little introspection into what went wrong last time, beyond saying 30-second sound bites and 60-second debate answers didn't give voters an accurate impression of him.
Since then, he has been doing the low-profile tasks that can accumulate valuable political chits.
As soon as his CPAC speech ended Thursday afternoon, he caught a flight to Grand Rapids, Mich., to address the local Boy Scout Council's 100th anniversary celebration that night. The next day, he was in Sioux Falls, S.D., to headline a fundraiser for Republican Sen. John Thune. This week, he's scheduled to be in Atlanta on Thursday to raise money for congressmen Tom Price, Lynn Westmoreland and Phil Gingrey. Friday, he'll be in Naples, Fla., to do the same for Rep. Connie Mack.
Brown's victory in Massachusetts and his gratitude for Romney's help show how those efforts can pay off. The embrace of Romney by the rising Republican star credited with stalling the Democrats' health care bill has given Romney "the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for independents," Madden says.
In a surprise appearance that delighted the audience, Brown showed up Thursday at CPAC to introduce Romney.
"If you want to fix a broken economy, let me give you a piece of advice," Brown told them. "You have to listen to Governor Mitt Romney." Brown called him "a unique leader" and "a very, very dear friend."