WASHINGTON (AFP) – The battle for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination heats up on Thursday with the entry of default front-runner Mitt Romney into a race devoid of a clear favorite.
The former Massachusetts governor is expected to tout his business credentials and paint President Barack Obama as a poor manager of a faltering US economy in announcing his candidacy at 1630 GMT on a New Hampshire farm.
Considered next-in-line after losing out for the nomination in 2008 to Senator John McCain, strong name recognition has helped Romney top many early opinion polls, albeit often by slim margins in a tightly-bunched field.
The White House and Romney’s rivals rarely miss an opportunity to dig at his Achilles’ heel — a state health care overhaul that served as an inspiration for Obama’s reforms, which are anathema to core Republican voters.
He also faces an uphill battle to overcome deep suspicion of his Mormon faith amongst the Christian right, many of whom consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as it is officially known, heretical.
In a low-key video last month to say he was formally exploring a White House run, the 64-year-old Romney charged that Obama’s policies had failed to revive the economy and vowed to “put America back on a course of greatness.”
Contributing to his failure to win the 2008 nomination were doubts from core conservatives that he truly shared their values, as well as questions fueled by his moderate governing style in deeply liberal Massachusetts.
After vowing to cut taxes, be tough on illegal immigration and becoming an outspoken critic of gay marriage, Romney was forced to deny claims he was simply a “flip-flopper” who was ditching previously held liberal positions.
A Boston venture capitalist and founder of a management consultancy, Romney first entered politics in 1994 when he unsuccessfully stood against prominent Democrat Ted Kennedy for Massachusetts senator.
In 1999 he was brought in to rescue the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which had become mired in scandal.
He won plaudits for his handling of the crisis, saving the games from financial ruin, then translated the experience into a successful bid for the Massachusetts governorship in 2002.
Republican grandees worry the crowded field of possible White House hopefuls could end up helping Obama, who is vulnerable as the economy sputters its way out of the worst downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and former House speaker Newt Gingrich are the highest-profile Republican candidates to have declared their 2012 candidacy thus far.
Ex-ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, is expected to throw his hat into the ring, as is Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a flag-bearer of the conservative and libertarian Tea Party movement.
The biggest hype surrounds the possible candidacy of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who was McCain’s surprise pick for running-mate in 2008 and has since appeared to relish her role as an anti-Obama attack dog.
An ongoing “One Nation” bus tour along the eastern seaboard is fueling speculation that Palin — who has a canny grass-roots focus and a genius for milking media attention — will jump into the Republican field.
She dined on Tuesday in New York with another outsized and controversial conservative character, Donald Trump, the bombastic real estate mogul and reality television star who dropped his flirtation with a bid last month.
In what is proving to be a complex and confusing race that has pundits stumped for a clear favorite, nothing is certain.
Top of a recent CNN poll was former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has not ruled out a 2012 bid and is also in New Hampshire on Thursday for a Republican fund-raising event.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who finished second in delegate count to McCain in 2008, disappointed supporters last month by saying no, but reportedly rowed back Wednesday and suggested he could still run.