Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) filed the paperwork for a presidential exploratory committee Monday, making the long-anticipated first step toward a 2012 bid.
The timing of the announcement also provided him the opportunity to suck some air from the Democrats, who were using Tuesday’s anniversary of Massachusetts’ healthcare law to remind voters that Romney signed the bill into law.
Romney didn’t address that controversy in his Web announcement, instead stressing his business experience and criticizing Obama’s handling of the economy.
"From my vantage point in business and in government, I've become convinced that America has been put on a dangerous course by Washington politicians, and it's become even worse during the last two years," Romney said. "But I'm also convinced that, with able leadership, America's best days are still ahead.
"That's why today, I am announcing my exploratory committee for the presidency of the United States," he added.
The announcement came as a surprise Monday afternoon, going live with virtually no advance leaks.
Romney has been a quiet presence on the campaign trail and had been seen as one of the candidates most likely to wait, perhaps until summer, to formally launch a campaign. A spokeswoman said last week that he had no major plans set for this week.
But little seemed accidental about Romney's announcement — from the choice of a video backdrop in New Hampshire to its intense focus on jobs and the economy.
He is the second major Republican to enter the race, doing so after former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who announced in late March that he had set up a campaign.
Pawlenty likewise announced in a Web video, posted on his Facebook page. Obama announced his reelection campaign via video last Monday.
But, despite the similar methods, the videos couldn’t be more different.
Romney’s is a stripped-down, lower-production announcement compared to Pawlenty's, whose video releases often draw comparison to big-budget action films for their sweeping music and graphics. It was also different from Obama’s, which featured supporters talking about why they back the president.
In his video, Romney is the sole participant and speaks directly to the camera throughout the entire two-and-a-half-minute presentation. The video suggests that Team Romney has learned other lessons from the 2008 campaign, when the former governor faced criticism for not being seen as authentic or for projecting discomfort in public situations.
Instead, he seems at ease and more relaxed than he’d been in appearances during his last campaign.
Romney and his handlers have taken great strides to play up his background in business, which was stressed in the announcement video.
"How has this happened, in the nation that leads the world in innovation and productivity?" Romney asks. "The answer is that President Obama's policies have failed. He and virtually all of the people around him have never worked in the real economy; they just don't know how jobs are created in the private sector."
Campaign operatives tried to emphasize Romney’s business experience in 2008, playing up his business credentials and his work with the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. But that became overshadowed by questions about Romney’s Mormon faith and skepticism from the right about his conservative credentials.
However, the former governor has worked to win over the conservative crowd, addressing the annual Conservative Political Action Conference and quietly courting the GOP base.
One decision he’ll have to explain is his role in “RomneyCare,” as his critics call it. Both Democrats and some of his GOP rivals are aware of the threat it could pose for the former Massachusetts governor.
But a Republican strategist with ties to Romney said the campaign will have no problem dealing with the issue.
"There's no hesitation on dealing with healthcare as an issue. It's an issue that is on voter's minds, it's an issue the governor knows a lot about and it will of course come up in the campaign. The governor has a vision for how he wants to lead America and what we need to do to get back on track as a nation. That's going to be what voters look for and what voters care about, I believe. I feel certain they aren't focused on anniversaries of bill signings," the strategist said.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), himself a possible GOP candidate, has criticized Romney on the law, as has former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who’s seen as one of the top contenders for the nomination, if he runs.
Recent polling has shown Romney and Huckabee trading off the perch atop the Republican field, though neither owns a commanding lead at this point in the race.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse pointed out the announcement’s timing in a release Monday, writing: “If I was getting dogged with this story [about the healthcare anniversary], I'd seek a distraction too, like maybe announcing a presidential exploratory committee, perhaps.”
Romney enters the campaign with a staff and infrastructure in place. And while he relied on his personal wealth in the 2008 campaign — spending an estimated $45 million of his own money — Romney has built an extensive donor base. His political action committee (PAC) raised $9.1 million in the 2010 cycle, according to the watchdog group Open Secrets. It raised $1.9 million in the first quarter of 2011.
Additionally, Free and Strong America, Romney's PAC, has carefully doled out hundreds of thousands in donations to Republican incumbents, GOP campaign committees and state Republican parties.
His video on Monday offered additional hints about the strategy Romney might pursue in his bid for the nomination.
As expected, Romney is basing his campaign in Massachusetts, the state where he served a single term as governor, and where most of his political advisers are based.
The campaign is expected to push particularly hard for Romney in nearby New Hampshire, where Romney owns a summer home and where the first formal primary is held. Likely not by accident, Romney's announcement video was recorded in Durham, N.H., where he said he was speaking to students at the University of New Hampshire.
New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley was quick to put out a statement criticizing the former governor.
“Mitt Romney is inching closer to a race for president, but the real question is whether he’s inching any closer to a core set of principles so that the people of the Granite State will be able to learn who the real Mitt Romney actually is,” Buckley said. “Is he the socially liberal Mitt Romney of 1994 and 2002 — the man who ran for the Senate and who served as a progressive governor of a neighboring state — or is he the Mitt Romney of 2008 and 2012, who changed all his positions as soon as he started thinking about running for the Republican nomination for president?”
—This story was originally posted at 3:45 p.m. and last updated at 7:23 p.m.