LATIMER, Iowa -- In stark contrast his demeanor four years ago, Mitt Romney seems at peace this time as a presidential candidate.
He has seen enough ups and downs in his decades around political campaigns to avoid complacency, but Romney knows that the circumstances surrounding his fight to win the Republican nomination have shaped up even more favorably than he could have hoped.
His tranquility is evident in just about every campaign stop he makes these days and was particularly noticeable during an interview Thursday with RCP as his campaign bus rolled across northern Iowa -- a state that effectively crushed his White House hopes in 2008 but now presents him with the almost too-good-to-be-true opportunity: to move toward wrapping up the nominating battle just as it gets under way.
Romney confessed that he was having "a lot more" fun on this campaign than he did during his first run, when he often appeared tense on the trail, struggling to find a resonant message but instead flailing from one rationale for his candidacy to another.
"I recognize that things are out of our control," Romney said, as he shot a glance at his wife Ann, who was seated next to him on a couch in the back of the bus. "That lowers the pressure a lot."
As Romney fielded questions on a wide range of topics, his answers were often deliberate and nuanced in a way reflective of someone who knows he has a real chance to soon govern the nation.
Asked, for instance, whether a President Romney would allow a financial institution as large as Bank of America or Citigroup to fail in a hypothetical crisis, he first emphasized that he "would not suggest that some institutions should be free from the prospect of the bankruptcy courts."
But after reiterating that he doesn't support bailing out individual institutions, Romney left himself some leeway.
"Obviously, I will look at the circumstances that might exist in the future," he said.
With his status as the clear-cut Republican favorite solidifying, and precious little time left for any of the underdogs to knock his once precarious front-runner candidacy off stride in the long run, Romney was in no mood to attack his GOP opponents.
He predicted that "three or four" candidates would be in a position to move forward after the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday and that the nominating fight would continue "for a while," but he did not attempt to mask his skepticism about the long-term viability of Ron Paul, with whom he is tied in the latest RealClearPolitics Iowa polling average.
"Ron Paul's not going to be our nominee," Romney said in response to a question about whether the Texas congressman's foreign policy beliefs would endanger the country if he were to become president.
When a voter pressed him about his own foreign policy views during a rally in Mason City earlier Thursday, Romney was careful not to pigeonhole himself in a manner he might later regret, as he answered in generalities about North Korea and other hot spots.
But asked in the interview for his reaction to the popular street protests that have challenged the authoritarian regime in Russia, Romney took a more aggressive stance, suggesting that he sees Vladimir Putin as an adversary rather than someone he might work with closely on the world stage.
"I think Putin has shown his colors as someone who would like to return to the glory days of the Soviet Union of the past," Romney said. "I think his brand of democracy is not something we would recognize, and I hope the Russian people are able to find leaders that are more willing to represent the interests of the people."
In a separate interview with the Huffington Post, Romney unveiled a new line of attack against President Obama by suggesting that the current commander-in-chief is as out of touch with the concerns of everyday Americans as Marie Antoinette was before the monarchy was overthrown in the French Revolution.
In the interview with RCP, Romney said that he was unconcerned about perceptions that his own privileged upbringing and vast personal fortune will impede him from connecting with voters in a general election.
"I don't think we select people based upon the circumstances of their birth -- I think we look at their life experiences, what they've achieved, what their vision is," he said. "No question the president will wage a campaign trying to divert people from consideration of his record."
As for the titans of business who are raking in near-record profits while the majority of the country is struggling through slow economic growth and high unemployment, Romney cautioned companies to exercise restraint in the realm of executive pay, even as he affirmed his belief that the government is not entitled to set parameters on salaries.
"I think that boards of directors and shareholders should pay particular attention to the compensation packages of senior executives and should not install packages that are out of line with the needs of their enterprises and out of line with the expectations of society," he said. "I think you're seeing greater shareholder activism and a movement towards independence on boards of directors, which will be healthy."
With outside spending groups -- which are permitted to accept unlimited donations from individuals and corporations -- taking a major role in the Republican race, Romney was more specific than he has been previously in laying out his vision for a reformed campaign finance structure.
Romney himself has benefited immensely in Iowa from a sustained advertising campaign from Restore Our Future -- a super PAC supporting his candidacy that has spent millions of dollars on TV ads attacking Newt Gingrich.
But asked whether he supported a system that permitted unlimited individual donations directly to candidates, Romney replied, "Yes."
"Yeah, what we have right now is unlimited political contributions, but they're not controlled by the campaigns," he said. "They're controlled by unaffiliated or uncoordinated entities, which, in my opinion, is the worst of both worlds. It means that large contributions have a big impact, and it means that the campaign can't control them, so if we're going to have big contributors, wouldn't it be nice to have the campaigns responsible for what those contributors say?"
Romney's call to eliminate the $2,500 limit that individuals are allowed to give directly to candidates in each election cycle is sure to raise alarms among campaign finance watchdogs, but the former Massachusetts governor shrugged off any suggestion that such a change would worsen the perception that big money buys outsized influence in Washington.
"We already have unlimited contributions," Romney said, referring to the super PAC rules. "The question is: Is the campaign going to be responsible for them or is the campaign going to not have control of its own message?"
Though he has not pulled his punches against Obama while positioning himself as the candidate best positioned to win next November, Romney was careful not to overstate his capacity to change the DNA of Washington.
He said that as president, he would seek out Democrats who "care more about the country than they care about their re-election" in order to restore a broken system that Obama has not been able to transform.
"He made a great promise that he would change the way Washington works, and that's a difficult promise to fulfill," Romney said of the current president, whose 2008 Iowa triumph he hopes to replicate. "But one thing he could have fulfilled is changing the way the White House works, and his White House has been partisan, has been in attack mode, has been deaf to the concerns of people across the aisle. And so while he may say it was too much to change all of Washington, he could have at least changed the White House, and that he did not do.