LAS VEGAS — In his first presidential run in 2008, Mitt Romney sought back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire to propel him to the GOP nomination. He won neither, the two-state sprint failed and so did his candidacy.
This time his strategy is more of a multi-state marathon, with economically suffering Nevada an important round in what advisers predict could be a protracted fight to be the party's 2012 nominee.
On his first trip this year to Nevada, the former Massachusetts governor toured a neighborhood north of Las Vegas Friday that has been very hard hit by foreclosures and talked throughout his trip of economic worries that top voters' lists of concerns.
"Seeing somebody learn on the job in the presidency has not been a pretty sight," Romney said Saturday to the Republican Jewish Coalition in a speech casting himself as a seasoned business executive.
He also challenged President Barack Obama's foreign policy record and received a standing ovation.
"I think the president's inexperience in negotiations contributed to less than positive developments on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating front," Romney said.
Nevada is third in line to vote on the 2012 Republican primary calendar.
It has the highest U.S. unemployment rate, at 13.6 percent in February, and that gives Romney a chance to hone his central campaign theme: Obama's policies are hampering the economic recovery and he's the best Republican on that issue.
"His domestic policies have cost us jobs and I've met the men and women who could be working but are not working," Romney said to applause. "It's causing the breakup of families, it causes people to lose their faith, it causes kids to not go to college. I will take him on, head on, and aggressively."
"The difference between us is as clear as day and night," he added.
Romney is the closest to a front-runner in a field that lacks one. He's expected to enter the race later in April and has readied for a second act since falling short to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2008.
Allies and aides who outlined the path Romney is charting spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publically discuss private strategy sessions.
The strategy calls for big showings in New Hampshire and Nevada to boost momentum. After that comes strong fights in enough other states so Romney enters the party convention in Tampa, Fla., next fall with more delegates pledged to him than any other Republican.
Romney seeks to seize on a change in how the GOP chooses its nominee.
Candidates who won a state used to get all delegates in a winner-take-all system. Republicans now will award delegates proportionally, meaning finishing second or third in a state is worth it. That could benefit a wealthy candidate such as Romney. In 2008, he spent $110 million, $45 million of his own money.
His hopes aren't without hurdles. There's the health care law enacted in Massachusetts on his watch. It's similar to Obama's national health overhaul, which conservatives despise.
When Romney opened the floor for questions, the first was about his health care plan, which he did not address during his remarks.
"That experiment hasn't worked perfectly," Romney conceded and returned to a well-worn answer.
"If I were lucky enough to be president, the thing I would do on Day One is grant a waiver to all 50 states for Obamacare and then get to work repealing it."
Romney also must overcome a record of changing positions on social issues such as gay rights and abortion. His shifts have left conservatives questioning his sincerity and his Mormonism.
In 2008, Romney spent $7 million on Iowa airwaves and built an enormous statewide organization. Yet he never won over conservatives who dominate the early decision-making.
This time, signs point to a token Iowa effort.
"Right now, Iowa is sort of the Christian Coalition primary and he's not really playing," said Doug Gross, a Des Moines lawyer who managed Romney's caucus campaign in 2008 but hasn't signed on to a campaign this time. "He doesn't have to win Iowa. If he finishes third in Iowa, that would be seen as a positive thing."
Romney plans to make his first big stand in New Hampshire. He finished second there in 2008 and has maintained strong ties to the state, where he owns a vacation home. He's helped the state party raise money and kept a political team in place in preparation for a second run.
Nevada's next on the nominating calendar and would appear ripe for Romney to do well.
He won the state in 2008, though his competitors largely overlooked the caucuses because they assumed the state's heavily Mormon population would vote overwhelmingly for one of their own.
"I honestly do believe a Mormon in office would help our country," said Jennifer Fung, a Mormon who met Romney as he walked through her neighborhood in North Las Vegas on Friday. "All the people that I associate with, everybody says they voted for Mitt Romney in the election."
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, came in second place, underscoring a libertarian streak in the state.
"Romney, should he run, walks into this as a front-runner in that he's got an organization left over from last time," said Ryan Erwin, a senior adviser in Nevada during Romney's last campaign. "He has a lot of friends here but crazy things happen."
The GOP primary electorate is shaping up to be more conservative than it was four years ago, because of the emergence of the tea party. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Mormon who served as Obama's ambassador to China, is expected to compete strongly in Nevada if he runs, and that could cut into Romney's support.
Unlike four years ago, South Carolina isn't likely to get lots of attention from Romney. He worked the state for over a year in 2008, only to place a distant fourth. Religious conservatives who hold great sway in the state never warmed to Romney.
Romney's advisers anticipate working hard in Michigan and Florida.
Romney won the 2008 primary in Michigan, where his was father was governor. He'll shoot for a repeat before turning to Florida, where he hopes his economic message will play well with the state's large retiree population.
He narrowly lost to McCain in Florida. Within days, he dropped out of the race, endorsed McCain and started looking ahead to the 2012 campaign.
Now, it's here.