BOSTON Mitt Romney, a presidential also-ran in 2008, is powering up a fund-raising machine he hopes will obliterate competition for the 2012 Republican nomination.
The former Massachusetts governor has yet to formally get into the race, but Romney is on a cross-country blitz to meet wealthy, well-networked donors.
Now a seasoned campaigner, Romney is regarded as the early front-runner in a jumbled field of more than a dozen Republicans, most of whom have not formally announced. A massive war chest -- likely as much as $50 million -- could create an air of inevitability about his run and even keep some poorly-funded rivals out of the race entirely.
"The money buys Romney the ability to run everywhere. It's a tremendous advantage," said Jeffrey Berry, professor of political science at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.
Berry said some early-voting states, including Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada, "look perilous" for Romney, but that the deep-pocketed candidate "can live to fight on in the next round."
A former chief executive of private investment firm Bain Capital, Romney has natural ties to "money guys" on and off Wall Street that many of his rivals lack, said Berry.
Romney met with almost 100 wealthy donors in New York in late March when he reportedly said he will need about $50 million through the primary season. Each attendee was reportedly asked to raise up to $50,000 once the candidate officially opens a presidential exploratory committee.
Washington, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Dallas have also been on his fund-raising tour.
Romney can also tap his personal fortune, which during the 2008 campaign was estimated at $190 million to $250 million in a form filed with the Federal Election Commission. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that he spent about $44 million of his own money on that campaign, while collecting about $60 million in contributions from individuals.
Romney will also rely on fellow Republicans. Via a political action campaign, he has donated more than $300,000 so far in 2011 to over 100 U.S. Senate and House Republicans across the country.
This week, Romney added $45,000 in donations to the Republican National Committee and party committees -- and surely wants that largess to circle back to him in support.
Delaying a formal announcement -- Romney launched his 2008 run in February 2007, just weeks after finishing his stint in Massachusetts -- could also be a way of keeping competitors off-balance while he lines up supporters.
DIFFERENT FROM 2008
Analysts familiar with Romney said the candidate counts on the 2012 campaign being different from the one that swept Democrat Barack Obama into the White House.
For one, Republicans are not running against the legacy of an unpopular incumbent from their own party, but against a weakened Obama, whose party lost control of the House of Representatives in November 2010.
For another, the focus could be on the struggling U.S. economy more than on U.S. military action in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya. Romney's lack of foreign policy credentials hurt him in the Republican matchup against John McCain in 2008.
Romney talks of an "Obama misery index," a compendium of weak economic data including unemployment, home foreclosures and bankruptcies, and contrasts with his business acumen as a former leveraged buyout specialist.
"I know a thing or two about how jobs are created and how they are lost. The most important lesson I learned is that there are three rules of every successful turnaround; focus, focus and focus," he wrote recently.
Four years ago, much of the coverage of Romney focused on his Mormon religion. Now Romney has a problem that got less attention in 2008 -- the first-in-the-nation healthcare mandate he created for Massachusetts. "Romneycare" became the model for Obama's healthcare reform reviled by Republican lawmakers.
White House officials have smothered Romney with a bear-hug of praise for the health program. Republican rivals such as former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee slam him on the subject, and some Tea Party conservatives see it as a deal-breaker.
Although he stands by the Massachusetts program, Romney has also said he would sign an executive order if elected, allowing states to opt out of Obama's plan.
(Reporting by Ros Krasny; Editing by Mark Egan and Philip Barbara)