TAMPA — Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential frontrunner who recently raised $10 million in one day, said Thursday that winning the nomination will be less about money than who connects best with voters.
And that could be his biggest problem.
The former Massachusetts governor has business expertise, campaign experience and vast financial resources. He even has the presidential look — granite chin and all.
It's the personal connection that sometimes eludes him and partly explains why despite Romney's resume, extensive insider support and formidable campaign team, so many Republicans continue pining for someone else to get in the race.
Amid a three-day private fundraising tour through Florida, Romney invited the TV cameras to Buddy Brew Coffee in South Tampa on Thursday morning to watch him chat with eight Floridians about their lengthy and sometimes painful struggles to find decent, stable jobs.
"I should also tell my story. I'm also unemployed,'' quipped Romney, 64, who is worth around $200 million.
"I'm networking. But I have my sight on a particular job. I know exactly what I'm aiming for," he added with a chuckle.
It's not a great idea for multi-millionaire candidates with multiple mansions across the country to make jokes about unemployment.
Those gathered at Buddy Brew did not seem to mind, but Democrats from New Hampshire to Washington to Florida pounced on the remark as stunningly out of touch and insensitive.
Romney should be the runaway frontrunner in this contest. In modern history Republicans have had a knack for nominating the "next in line" — Richard Nixon in 1968, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008.
Having fallen short against McCain despite spending more than $42 million of his own money, Romney should be "next in line" for 2012.
"We are not in normal. There is nothing normal about politics right now,'' said Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who had hoped Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels would run and is now looking mainly at Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. "This is wide open."
Dozens of Florida's top Republican fundraisers have agreed to help lead Romney's team, including Pinellas County businessmen James Holton and former ambassador Mel Sembler, who hosted a fundraiser for Romney on Wednesday evening, and much of the GOP establishment is lining up behind the early frontrunner.
"Mitt Romney has the experience to lead a much-needed economic recovery. He has created jobs, balanced budgets and cut taxes,'' said U.S. Rep. Connie Mack of Fort Myers, who endorsed Romney on Thursday along with U.S. Reps. Ander Crenshaw of Jacksonville and Tom Rooney of Palm Beach County.
Still, that doesn't necessarily translate to rank-and-file support.
"Everyone wants to back a winner and based on a preliminary analysis of polls, Romney looks like the safest horse to bet on, but as we've all learned, early polls can be treacherously deceiving," Republican consultant Ana Navarro of Miami said of top Florida money-raisers. "There are still a surprising number of Florida donors up for grabs. I still don't see much indication Romney is picking up any real traction with the GOP primary base. Florida will be a brawl and is not in the bag for any one candidate right now."
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this week found Romney handily leading all potential rivals, with 30 percent support, but only 45 percent of Republicans said they were satisfied with the current field.
That ambivalence was on display even at Romney's campaign stop in Tampa.
"I wish Chris Christie would run," said Mark Thomas of Tampa, owner of a marine services company, who came out to see Romney even though he would prefer to see New Jersey Gov. Christie or Sarah Palin run. "People are a little gun-shy on Romney. He seems a little liberal and some of his positions have changed a few times."
Paul Puleo, a Tampa label manufacturer, said he prefers Texas Gov. Rick Perry but is open-minded about Romney. One concern: As Massachusetts governor, Romney signed a health care law that mandates insurance for every resident — much like the federal health care overhaul reviled by many conservatives.
"Any time the government forces someone to buy something, that does disturb me,'' he said.
There have been different versions of Mitt Romney.
When he ran for U.S. Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994 and successfully for Massachusetts governor in 2002, he was the moderate, can-do businessman who supported abortion rights and distanced himself from Ronald Reagan.
When he ran for president in 2008, Romney stressed family values and social conservatism. He stressed his opposition to abortion rights, as well as tough anti-illegal immigration positions.
These days Romney tries for a looser look, sans tie, and focuses on the economy rather than social issues.
"It breaks my heart to see Floridians out of work. President Obama has failed Florida. He's failed Florida's people with a 10.8 percent unemployment rate,'' Romney said Thursday. "It's just inexcusable, and I'm running for president because I've spent my life in the private sector and I think it helps to have had a job if you want to create a job."
Florida all but crowned McCain the nominee in 2008, and it stands to be just as important in 2012 if Republican legislative leaders stick by their plans to schedule an early presidential primary.
The state party plans a "Presidency 5" convention in Orlando in September featuring a Fox News debate and "straw poll" for party activists. Romney announced last week he would not spend resources participating in that officially meaningless straw poll, but he hopes Florida Republicans will have a big say in picking the nominee.
"I'd love to have a very active and leading Florida role in the process, because I think I'll do well in Florida," Romney said.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at [email protected]