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 multistate 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 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 yesterday 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."
Romney is the closest to a front-runner in a field that lacks one. He's expected to enter the race later this month and has readied for a second act since falling short to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008.
Allies and aides said Romney's 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 with more delegates pledged to him than any other Republican.
Romney seeks to seize on a change in how the GOP chooses its nominee, from winner-take-all to awarding delegates proportionally. That means 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.
Then there's Iowa. In 2008, Romney spent $7 million on ads 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.