BECKLEY, W.Va. — As the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney was criticized at times for an often-wooden stage presence and stilted delivery that left voters underwhelmed and unimpressed.
But it was a very different Mitt Romney on display Tuesday during a rally here for GOP Senate hopeful Shelley Moore Capito and two House candidates, Alex Mooney and Evan Jenkins.
Wearing jeans and a blue windowpane dress shirt, Romney came across more like the candidate many Republicans wished he’d been two years ago: relaxed, self-assured, amiable — even “effervescent,” according to one woman.
“He’s being himself,” said Joanne Tripp, one of about 500 Capito supporters at Tuesday’s rally at the Tamarack conference center. “I wish he was that way during the  election. He came off too stiff, too rehearsed when he was running for president. But here, he’s not trying so hard. Like he’s really having fun.
Indeed, Romney himself says he is enjoying his role as a top surrogate for the party this year more than he did running for president two years ago. If nothing else, campaigning for others is a lot less stressful.
“Actually, I’m not running for anything,” Romney said at the start of a brief huddle with reporters following the rally. “So I don’t have to worry too much.”
Of course, a more relaxed Romney is to be expected, given how grueling a months-long national campaign can be compared to the relatively relaxed role of elder statesman and A-list endorser. It’s also far easier, as his comments suggest, to be sanguine with nothing to lose. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle — when one misplaced word or out-of-context sound bite can sink a campaign — having to watch not only what you say, but also how you say it, can be exhaustively nerve-wracking.
Romney’s recent political resurrection seemed unlikely after his defeat two years ago to President Barack Obama. His comment a week after the election that Obama won only because he gave voters “gifts” in the form of entitlements like food stamps smacked of sour grapes and drew fire from both parties. It especially angered Republicans trying to counter the perception of the GOP as the party of rich, white men who have little sympathy for the poor and middle class.
Romney also took a beating during the campaign, when his “47 percent” and “corporations are people” comments seemed to confirm for many the image of Romney as a privileged trust-funder, arrogant and out of touch with ordinary Americans.
But over the last year, as the prescience of his 2012 comments about Iraq and Russia became clear — and as Obama’s poll numbers sunk to as new lows — Romney has been welcomed back into the fold as an informal adviser to GOP leaders, and as a top draw for Republican candidates across the country.
And with former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush staying out of the spotlight, Romney’s renaissance — and willingness to hit the road for GOP hopefuls — couldn’t have come at a better time for a party eyeing control of the U.S. Senate in the Nov. 4 election. Romney has appeared on behalf of House and Senate candidates in several states. His stop in West Virginia, which included a Charleston fundraiser as well as the Beckley rally, was part of a three-day swing stumping for Republicans in the South. He was scheduled to appear at rallies for GOP candidates in North Carolina and Arkansas on Wednesday and Thursday.
“Romney is something of the head party elder now, perhaps even the de facto face of the GOP,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. “He’s become a strong surrogate for the GOP.”
Capito, for one, agrees — especially when it comes to West Virginia and her campaign to succeed retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). She faces West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, the Democratic nominee, this fall.
“Mitt Romney won all 55 counties in 2012,” Capito said in an interview the day before the rally. “I think, historically, that had never happened before with a Republican presidential nominee … He’s going to be welcomed here.”
That he was. A crowd seeking handshakes and photos swarmed Romney as he walked off the stage onto the ballroom floor Tuesday. With chants of “Mitt! Mitt!” heard through the room, it almost felt like a reprise of 2012’s presidential campaign. Which begs the question: As several people at the Tamarack center asked him, is a third run for president in Mitt Romney’s future?
Romney has been pretty clear on that point, though.
“I’ve actually answered that one a lot of times,” he said in response to a reporter’s question about 2016. “I’m not running there. I’m expecting to be getting behind a good person who will be.”
Nonetheless, it must be tantalizing for Romney to think of the possibilities. Recent polls show Romney would beat the president in a rematch today. It may be a pointless exercise to consider, given the president can’t run for a third term, and Romney says he won’t make another try for the White House. Still, in his response to a question about the poll Tuesday, there was a hint of resigned vindication, good-humored acceptance — and perhaps a touch of what-might-have-been wistfulness that many in the Republican Party no doubt feel.
Said Romney: “Wouldn’t that be nice.”