About a year before he made his first run for the presidency, I had a chance to sit down and talk extensively with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
I found him more personable than much of the media had portrayed him. He was as sharp as a pinprick on the issues, but maybe a little too polished to win over many "regular" Americans.
I wasn't persuaded that he was the bedrock conservative he professed to be. And I sure didn't judge him to be on the fast track to the White House. That was in 2008.
Nowadays, I watch Romney on the campaign trail. I listen to his responses in public debates. I chat up some of his closest political supporters and friends. And I become increasingly convinced that if the Republicans really want to get President Barack Obama out of office, they might have to rally around the man who has the most going for him in 2012. That's Mitt Romney.
There are other announced or potential GOP candidates who appear to have deeper and longer-standing conservative values than Romney does.
For me, Newt Gingrich is a prime example. But at least for the moment, his chances look to be greatly reduced by what I suspect was a not-so-coincidental decision by Texas Gov. Rick Perry to "strongly consider" a 2012 run — that, along with the departure en masse of Gingrich's campaign staff, some of whom are former Perry devotees.
Personally, I think much of what Ron Paul espouses makes a lot of sense. He was warning of mountainous deficits and feverish federal spending long before most Republicans even considered what such practices could lead to.
But sadly for Paul, we live in a nation in which libertarian-minded conservatives stand little chance of insinuating themselves into the Republican establishment, which too often "anoints" the GOP presidential nominee. And even if these ultra-conservatives were to break into the Republican inner circle, they would almost surely be routed in the general election.
Emergent stars like Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty have marquee potential. But they are just now going through the vetting process that Romney has long ago dealt with.
As for Rick Perry, he has a certain zest and energy about him. He also has powerful enemies who are sowing ugly rumors about him that have the media buzzing among themselves. Even if these tales of tawdry misdeeds are untrue, Perry likely would be tarnished by media back-and-forth discussions about these allegations.
So it's back to Romney. He has advantages in the Republican race. Not the least of them is a nationwide campaign organization that already has worked the kinks out from the 2008 race. It probably won't look so strong in Iowa, where a tea party-style candidate likely will win.
But Romney could well emerge victorious in the Florida primary, which, with its bag brimming with many delegates, overwhelms other states' early primaries for influence.
Were Romney to win in New Hampshire and Florida, he likely would cruise into an expected early "Super Tuesday" lineup of states' primaries with both more money and the most efficient and experienced staff.
Should he lock down the nomination early, it would give the GOP even longer to heal from the inevitable battle scars of any presidential primary contest. That would allow both the party and Romney to focus on Barack Obama.
Romney is fortunate, too, in one key regard: His Mormon religion was talked to death in 2008. Factor in that Obama's own religious impulses and beliefs have always looked a bit muddled, and suddenly Romney's religious practices seem less relevant.
Lastly and perhaps most tellingly, Romney's slick and stylish personality might be better suited to the 2012 race than it was in 2008, if only because the president himself is a brand built on polish.
There will be plenty of criticism of the so-called "Romneycare" — Romney's initiative as governor to provide a public/private alternative to universal, government-run healthcare in Massachusetts. But the shortcomings of the system in that state pale in comparison to the bureaucratic tangle that is "Obamacare."
Romney, too, will be grilled about his conservative bona fides, at least in the early primary season. But when staunch Republicans start considering the big prize — who can actually take the White House for the GOP — and when they see Romney ably debating Obama, my guess is that even the most ardent tea partyers will be cheering Romney's every word.
Matt Towery is author of the book, "Paranoid Nation: The Real Story of the 2008 Fight for the Presidency." He heads the polling and political information firm InsiderAdvantage.
© Creators Syndicate Inc.