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Romney's easy road -- so far

Last week, Mitt Romney said something that observers (and even supporters) of his 2008 presidential campaign would have found shocking four years ago: He's the candidate who doesn't change his positions, while his opponents are flip-floppers.

The American people "can tell when people are being phony and are pandering to an audience, and you’ll see that in politics. You’re not going to see that in my campaign," said Romney, who was constantly accused of being a flip-flopper (on issues like abortion) in 2007-2008.

The reaction among rival Republican campaigns, Democratic opposition researchers, and some in the news media: a collective yawn.

On Monday, Romney's campaign hit Rick Perry with this press release: "Rick Perry And Barack Obama The Same On Illegal Immigration" -- even though Romney appeared to support comprehensive immigration reform in a 2006 article, and even though he once used a landscaping company that employed illegal immigrants.

The pushback from Team Perry: non-existent.

And at last week's GOP debate, Romney channeled his inner Obi-Wan Kenobi to sidestep a question on his Massachusetts' health-care, which shares many similarities to President Obama's federal health-care law. His message: These aren't the droids you're looking for.

"If I'm president of the United States, on my first day in office, I will issue an executive order which directs the secretary of Health and Human Services to provide a waiver from ObamaCare to all 50 states. That law is bad; it's unconstitutional; it shall not stand."

In other words, pay no attention to the similarities between "RomneyCare" and "ObamaCare." 

Indeed, for someone who still probably stands a 50%-50% chance of being the Republican Party's presidential nominee, Mitt Romney had it relatively easy so far.

One reason why is that he's run for president before -- and thus doesn't feel as "new" as the Michele Bachmanns and Rick Perrys. "There are benefits to having been a candidate previously," said one Republican strategist who is neutral in the GOP presidential race. "You have already been scrutinized."

Another reason is that Romney is a much better candidate than he was four years ago. "He has gotten a lot better," the strategist adds. "Better at being able to absorb and deflect" -- like he did with the health-care question in last week's debate.

A final reason has been the relatively late start to the GOP race, at least compared with 2008. June and July marked the rise of Bachmann's candidacy, while August and September have marked the rise of Perry's campaign. Hence the opportunity for Romney to stay out of the spotlight during much of the summer.

But that won't last forever, especially after Perry's recent debate struggles.

Consider this fertile ground for Perry and his other GOP rivals:
-- Just six years ago, Romney supported abortion rights;
-- in 1994, he sent a letter saying he'd be a stronger advocate for gay rights than Ted Kennedy;
-- according to a 2006 article, he supported a path to citizenship for law-abiding illegal immigrants, and the Boston Globe reported that he used a landscaping company than employed illegal immigrants;
-- and in 2007, he said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the Massachusetts health-care law should be a model for other states.

Team Romney knows things will only get more difficult. "Never, not even for a second, has there been an assumption that it would be easy," Romney adviser Kevin Madden tells First Read. "This will be a hard-fought campaign. There will be attacks from opponents. The difference between a winning campaign and a losing one is whether you recognize that and whether you're prepared. This campaign is prepared."