By Ros Krasny
BOSTON (Reuters) - Mitt Romney, the multi-millionaire former governor of Massachusetts, kicks off his second bid for the White House on Thursday as the front-runner of a wide-open Republican field.
Romney will start his campaign in New Hampshire, the early-voting state where a win in the February primary election would boost his chance of taking the nomination and facing President Barack Obama in the November 2012 general election.
Romney has a powerful fund-raising apparatus in place. He raised an astounding $10.25 million in an eight-hour phone-a-thon in Las Vegas last month. Contacts from Romney's days running the venture capital firm Bain Capital are another rich source of campaign donations.
"In a relatively open field, Mitt Romney at this juncture is the front-runner from an organizational and fund-raising standpoint," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.
Most opinion polls show other Republican hopefuls like former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty trailing Romney by a wide margin, although surveys are volatile this early in the race.
Romney's biggest stumbling block could be his support as governor of a healthcare program in Massachusetts that became a model for Obama's national healthcare overhaul. Many Republicans dislike what they derisively call "Obamacare."
Romney, 64, hopes to focus on economic issues, where he says his business background helps him as the United States struggles with high unemployment and weak growth.
The economy is perhaps the main weakness for Obama, although in polls he is still favored over all potential Republican opponents.
Many wonder whether Romney is conservative enough for the current Republican Party. With Tea Party activists on the rise, the party has shifted to the right since the 2008 election.
"In a less polarized environment, Romney would have vaulted to the top of the Republican hopeful list," said Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
"Now, a moderate and responsible former office-holder has lost a great deal of appeal to angry and frustrated people. Someone who can offer stability is seen as rather dull."
Romney's Mormonism also might be a hindrance to winning votes in from evangelical Christians in the south.
The tag of flip-flopper haunts Romney after he shifted positions on issues such as abortion, gay rights and gun control to position himself for the Republican nomination in 2008, after governing more from the center in Massachusetts.
Still, as the only prominent moderate among current Republican contenders, Romney could benefit as his more conservative rivals fight among themselves.
"Romney, as the only recognizable moderate Republican, is in a nice position to be fighting over the bigger piece of the pie," said Andrew Smith, director of the survey center at the University of New Hampshire. "If he gets in the 35 percent range of votes, he will win in New Hampshire."
Recent polls have put Romney's support in the state at 28 percent to 32 percent.
Romney has been expected to struggle in more conservative states like Iowa and South Carolina but a new Public Policy Polling survey in Iowa shows Romney leading there.
Romney's personal style has also been tweaked. After being criticized for his overly formal, CEO-type look in 2008, Romney has gone business-casual, often appearing tie-less in open-necked shirts and crisply pressed jeans.
"A lot more people like this Romney more than the 2008 Romney," O'Connell said. "But he has to demonstrate himself to be a fiscal conservative."
(Editing by Bill Trott)