CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Just under a year ago, Mitt Romney was looking at what promised to be a rough evening in Tampa, the same city where he will formally accept his party's presidential nomination this week.
At the time, that prize seemed to be slipping from his grasp. Polls showed Romney badly trailing Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a late entry into the race who was a matinee idol of the right. And the rowdy crowd that had gathered for a tea party-sponsored debate at the Florida State Fairgrounds was clearly in the mood for a rumble.
"You're going to get booed," Romney strategist Stuart Stevens recalls warning his candidate as they watched a television in a nearby trailer and assessed what awaited in the hall.
The former Massachusetts governor responded with . . . a big, deep chortle.
"It's happened before," he said.
But that night Perry was the one who got the catcalls, for being insufficiently tough on illegal immigrants. Romney was at his best, steady and confident as he tore apart Perry's contention that the sacrosanct Social Security system is a "Ponzi scheme." He left the stage having done what he wanted, which was to sow doubts that the swaggering Texan was the best candidate to go the distance against President Barack Obama.
Romney wasn't out to make Republicans love him. He was out to prove to them that they didn't have to.
That was the thing his more flamboyant rivals failed to understand about the complicated relationship Romney has with his party. It was why their constant attacks on his past apostasies, the biggest being the Obama-like health care law he passed in Massachusetts, failed. Not even Romney's own limits as an orator and campaigner tripped him up.
"Republicans convinced themselves he was acceptable, if not exciting," said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, another GOP primary contender who enjoyed a brief reign at the top of the polls. "His Teflon was 'I can beat Obama,' and Republicans said, 'That is enough for me.' "
The base's pragmatism, even in the dogmatic tea party era, was underestimated by everyone who ran against Romney, "including by me," Gingrich said.
But it is also true that this year, the name at the top of the ticket is not what defines the GOP identity as it has at times in the past. Some presidential candidates reshape their parties, as Ronald Reagan did in 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992, George W. Bush in 2000.
Romney fits more in the category of those who, with more mixed success, have run as true standard-bearers. Think Walter Mondale in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996. The Republican brand these days is stamped on Capitol Hill. Romney shows no sign of setting himself apart from that agenda, as unpopular as it is among independent and swing voters.
Months before Romney tapped Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., for his presidential ticket, he endorsed the House Budget Committee chairman's controversial fiscal blueprint, which includes a plan to drastically overhaul Medicare. Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist predicted: "If Romney is president, he will sign a bill that looks very much like Ryan, and we will call it 'the Romney revolution.' "
Republicans, moreover, are seeing Romney as a transitional figure rather than a transformational one.
A year ago, it seemed that every GOP gathering was paying tribute to the centennial of Reagan's birth. But Romney's nominating convention will throw a spotlight on the next wave of conservative talent - not only his running mate, but also New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida; Ted Cruz, the tea party Senate candidate from Texas who upset the establishment pick; Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
"This new generation signals the future of the party," said Ralph Reed, the longtime GOP operative who heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, an organization that aims to mobilize evangelical voters.
"Romney is both the midwife of and the beneficiary of their talent," Reed added. "And if he wins, they will spend the next four or eight years working with him, serving in his administration, and not incidentally, jockeying to succeed him."
But first, Romney must get elected. Between now and November will be a four-day infomercial from Tampa, in which he will have a chance to reintroduce himself to a broader audience; three presidential debates; and a day-by-day slog that is getting nastier with every new campaign commercial.
"The question for Mitt is how to grow beyond the primary and broaden his appeal. The convention will be an opportunity for that," said GOP consultant Mike Murphy, who worked on Romney's successful 2002 gubernatorial campaign and remains in touch.
In a Time Magazine column last week, Murphy urged his old client to use the Tampa gathering, which has an expected audience of 20 million households, to "revise his pitch and start talking to general-election voters."
There are no indications - talk of Etch A Sketches aside - that Romney will do that by trimming his positions. Nor is he distancing himself from a party that has moved to the right and has become as ideologically united as at any time in memory. On Friday, Romney even ventured to the fringe of the GOP with a clumsy joke that indulged those who contend Obama was not born in America.
With his surprising decision to run with Ryan, the intellectual leader of the conservative forces in the House, Romney has framed the election as more than just a referendum on the current occupant of the Oval Office. It will also be a choice between two starkly different governing philosophies.
That Romney's second run for the nomination succeeded is testament, in large measure, to the way he retooled his approach to politics after his defeat four years ago.
His 2.0 launch reflected both the lessons he learned from the past and the calculations he made about what lay ahead. As Romney often says when talking about his business career, he is a man who can count his share of mistakes. But those who have watched him closely know that rarely does he make the same one twice.
Romney's campaign this year is headquartered in the same dingy Boston waterfront building as it was in 2008, but everything else about the operation has been overhauled.
"This race was a mirror image of 2008," said Doug Gross, who was Romney's Iowa chairman that year but did not re-up this time around.
Despite speculation that the rise of the tea party would rewrite the playbook for winning the nomination, Romney decided early on a cautious, relatively conventional strategy.
Then he waited for each of his rivals in a weak field to self-immolate as they battled it out, a process helped along by the millions of dollars in negative ads that the outside super PAC Restore Our Future aired on his behalf.
"He is a manager who sticks with his strategies and implements them relentlessly," Gingrich said.
In his second run for president, Gingrich added, Romney has proven to be "much more stable, much more methodical. I think, in a way, calmer."