WASHINGTON — A week after losing the 2008 presidential primary to John McCain, Mitt Romney called one of his top supporters in Florida.
"He said, 'We're going to stay in touch,' and he was looking forward to getting back to Florida as much as he could," recalled state Sen. John Thrasher.
Get back he did. Romney started working Florida well before officially entering the 2012 race, with a focus on capturing key supporters and fundraisers and keeping them in his corner while more conservative candidates emerged.
The low-key visits allowed Romney to audition a retooled campaign persona. The stiff, corporate candidate of 2008 was replaced by a more approachable figure, dressed in jeans and open-collared shirts with rolled up sleeves.
Romney warmed up crowds for Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, the top Republicans on the 2010 Florida ticket, making jokes and honing a tightly focused message on jobs and the economy.
"Barack Obama, he was so confident of his future he's fit in 40 rounds of golf so far," Romney told a crowd at a rally for Scott at The Villages in October last year. "Forty rounds of golf! Mind you, I'm probably happier when he's listening to his caddy than when he's listening to his economic advisers."
Romney, 64, has challenges, not least, a feeling among many conservatives in Florida and nationally that he is a moderate with a stunning record of flip flops. His everyman makeover — accentuated with Twitter posts about flights on Southwest Airlines and meals at Carl's Jr. and Subway — has been viewed as equally phony.
Still, Romney has found a consistency as rivals rise and fall or lack the resources to compete. Another steady debate performance Wednesday night in Michigan added to the sense of inevitability surrounding the former Massachusetts governor, the candidate who most worries Democrats.
Quinnipiac University polls released Thursday showed Romney and Obama running about even in three crucial swing states: Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, with Romney slightly ahead in the Sunshine State.
"The whole campaign has been totally different this time," Thrasher said. "I think he feels very comfortable with who he is and the skill set he has to turn America around."
Florida provides a view into the reconstituted Romney.
He started showing up in early 2010 to promote his new book No Apology. In February he went to Naples to raise money for U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, a key supporter from 2008. In June, Romney headlined a fundraiser for Thrasher's state Senate race that pulled in $125,000.
Romney helped raised money for the state GOP and for gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum and used his political action committee to donate to Florida congressional candidates.
He endorsed an array of candidates, from top-ticket Republicans such as Jeff Atwater, who became the state's CFO, and Adam Putnam, who won the race for agriculture commissioner, to lesser known House candidates.
The politicians have repaid the favor and Romney has a formidable stable of endorsers across the state (nationally he has a big lead over other candidates) that give him establishment credibility and project an aura of inevitability.
On Monday in Tallahassee, some of the biggest names in state politics, including three future House speakers, are to appear at a fundraiser for Romney. He also has fundraisers scheduled in West Palm Beach and Sarasota.
No public events have been announced, a tactic Romney is employing in other states as he attempts to stay out of the general disarray of his rivals' campaigns — and avoid reporters' questions.
Even Romney's fundraising approach is different. In 2008, he poured more than $35 million of his own money into the campaign. This time he is relying on donors, providing a greater sense of buy-in.
Starting in 2009, Romney began inviting groups of people to his vacation homes in New Hampshire and San Diego, seeking their financial help but also asking for ways to run the campaign differently.
Florida moneymen on the guest list included Thrasher, John Rood, Jay Demetree and Brian Ballard, Mel and Brent Sembler and Ned Siegel.
Ballard, a prominent Tallahassee lobbyist, said Romney's early visits to Florida and willingness to help other candidates built loyalty that persisted even as Texas Gov. Rick Perry shot ahead in the polls this summer.
"The normal reaction in politics is people jump off the side of the boat," said Ballard, who was national finance co-chair for McCain in 2008. "I didn't see any of that. It was like, buckle up your chin strap and let's go to work. I think it's made him a much better candidate."
Romney is benefiting from the lessons and mistakes of his first run. By this time in the last race, he was up on TV in five states, including Florida, and was engaged in a high-priced war for campaign talent. This go-around, Romney has yet to advertise anywhere. He had at least eight paid staffers in Florida last time; now he has five.
Another shortcoming of the 2008 bid was Romney's broad focus. He tried to have something for everyone and a focus on social issues exposed his contortions on abortion and gay marriage. This time, the message is focused on the economy and Romney is playing up his business background. Paradoxically, he's most often in casual dress, an effort to seem down to earth. He's trying to be less wooden, a trait that dogged him in 2008.
"Romney was warm, engaging, spontaneous and witty, utterly unlike the robotic, awkward Stepford candidate for his piteous 2008 primary campaign," a Tampa Tribune columnist wrote after Romney appeared at an Italian restaurant in Land O'Lakes with Rubio in October 2010.
Rubio left quickly but Romney stuck around, signing copies of his books, shaking hands and posing for photographs, favorable images that made the nightly TV news.
Friends insist this is the real Romney, though it's also the influence of his top strategist, Stuart Stevens, who was the message and ad man behind Florida Sen. Mel Martinez and Gov. Charlie Crist.
"Just that exposure out there, wrestling votes every day has made him a better candidate," said Alex Castellanos, a national Republican strategist who worked for Romney in 2008. "He's given something of himself to this campaign that he didn't last time."
For all his efforts and comfort, Romney has still hovered at the same spot in the polls and at times has struggled to make a convincing case he is a regular guy.
In one of his first visits to Florida as an official candidate in June, he sat down with unemployed workers at a coffee shop in Tampa to hear their stories. But he also told his own.
"I'm also unemployed," said the candidate worth $200 million. "I'm networking. But I have my sight on a particular job. I know exactly what I'm aiming for."