Mitt Romney, seen as too stiff and robotic to win over enough voters to claim the presidency in 2012, is undergoing his latest reboot, trying to become the Republican Party's elder statesman in an Image overhaul different from his predecessors who lost their bids for the White House.
Twenty years ago, Romney was a would-be giant killer, conservatives' best hope to defeat liberal icon Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994. Then he became the savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah, turned moderate Massachusetts governor. In 2012, he was a presidential candidate never fully embraced by his party. And now, he's the GOP voice of reason on foreign policy and government management.
Unlike Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., or Secretary of State John Kerry or even Hillary Clinton, Romney can be more selective in picking when to wade into a political fight. Those vanquished presidential candidates were immediately thrown back into the Washington fire after their defeats and were forced to carry their party's torch during bitter clashes on Capitol Hill.
And unlike Al Gore, for example, Romney doesn't have a policy issue that will serve as his single pursuit.
After keeping a low profile following his embarrassing loss to President Obama, Romney has made a carefully timed return to the limelight. He held a Park City, Utah, summit for GOP bigwigs and donors and appeared with underdog Virginia Senate candidate Ed Gillespie in recent days.
With Iraq on the brink of civil war and Russian aggression picking up again in Ukraine -- and perceptions of Obama's competence at a record low -- team Romney sees the perfect opening for the former Massachusetts governor to influence the national debate.
“Obama mocked the governor for his positions on Iraq and Russia,” said one senior aide for Romney’s presidential campaign. “A lot of people are now seeing that [Romney] knew exactly what he was talking about. I think you’re going to see a lot of people change their opinions about him.”
Romney has no interest in another presidential run, his aides say, but he doesn’t want to disappear from politics altogether.
During his candidacy, he often faced the dual challenge of trying to convince the GOP base he was conservative enough and persuading moderate and independent voters that he was not the ruthless corporate raider portrayed by the Obama campaign.
But the wealthy businessman no longer has to deflect those criticisms. Instead, he can focus almost exclusively on managerial acumen and promoting U.S. strength abroad, issues that play to his strengths.
"Win, lose or draw, candidates receive a certain level of affection once they’re no longer under the microscope,” explained Republican strategist Brian Donahue.
Romney’s supporters believed a behind-the-scenes documentary chronicling his presidential bids, released earlier this year, would help present him as more human and drum up more affection for him.
Still, Republicans have their doubts about Romney version 4.0. And it remains to be seen whether the public will care about his re-emergence.
“I don’t think he’s done enough to change the narrative that he was a bad presidential candidate,” said one veteran GOP strategist. “I’m not seeing the full-on strategy needed in order to effectively rebrand himself. I think he’s still trying to figure it out.”
Donahue offered this caveat: “It’s important not to confuse what the media believes is important versus the party establishment and boots on the ground. Right now, I think the focus on Romney is more from the media than Republican activists.”
However, the far right will have to decide whether to unite behind Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., or Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, or another candidate in that mold. Establishment Republicans are still trying to figure out whether they should back New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or a more centrist leader.
With the Republican Party lacking a true standard bearer, Romney could fill the void.
Even if he isn't running, the former Bay State governor could help convince voters who not to choose as their next commander in chief.
And he's developed an early target.
“I think you have to consider what's happened around the world during the years that she was secretary of state,” Romney said of Hillary Clinton during his latest appearance on NBC's “Meet the Press.” “You have to say it's been a monumental bust.” In case viewers missed his point, Romney called Clinton "clueless" three times.