Now, it has burst into full glory after just three months.
The former Massachusetts governor, still relatively unknown across the country, bested not only McCain and Giuliani in first-quarter fundraising, but posted a staggering $23 million that rivaled the $26 million previously announced by Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"I've been very heartened by the fact that people who have heard me and heard the message get on board, provide funding for me and support my effort," Romney said Tuesday on CBS News' The Early Show.
Giuliani, the former New York mayor who has amassed a sizable lead in national popularity polls of GOP candidates, reported raising $15 million, while McCain, the Arizona senator, said he raised $12.5 million.
The results not only cemented Romney's status as a first-tier competitor, but they also threatened to further erode support from McCain's already-flagging campaign, and to dry up funding for other lagging candidates.
"For McCain, it looks like he's made campaign finance reform work," said David King, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "Everyone knew he didn't like the role of money in politics, but one would have hoped he would have liked the role of money in his own campaign. He's now coming to this race a day late and $12 million short."
At the same time, Romney's finish was likely to lead to a reappraisal of his campaign, which was taking him to the leadoff primary state of New Hampshire on Tuesday, and the first caucus state of Iowa on Wednesday.
"People are having a positive reaction to him and are willing to open up a vein for him," said King.
Another GOP contender, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a favorite of social conservatives, reported raising over $1.9 million, including a $575,000 transfer from his Senate campaign account. A fifth Republican candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, reported raising a little more than $500,000.
Romney worked assiduously to enhance his political stature with strong fundraising, scheduling over 20 events during the 31 days of March.
He is seeking to become the first Mormon president. One poll this past summer showed that over a third of voters said they would not vote for a Mormon candidate, but Romney told The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm he doesn't think his religion will be a problem.
"People do want a person of faith to lead the country, but they don't particularly care what brand of faith that is so long as the values we share are the same," he said. "And as we look at my family, my marriage to my wife of 38 years, you'll recognize the values I have are as American as you'll find anywhere in the country."
Along the way, he tapped extensive contacts from his work as a venture capitalist, past chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association and longtime involvement in the Mormon church.
"The three major tools that you need to raise money for a presidential campaign are the experience of having been around the track, good name identification and good poll numbers," said Ron Kaufman, a former White House political director who is advising Romney. "McCain's got all three, Giuliani's got two of the three and Mitt Romney has none but he still succeeded."
Giuliani reported raising nearly $17 million since forming his presidential exploratory committee in November. He also had $11 million cash on hand as of Saturday, the end of the first quarter, according to his aides.
In a statement, Mike DuHaime, Giuliani's campaign manager, said the campaign was thrilled with the total, despite what he called a "late start" to fundraising. Yet the ex-mayor held his first major fundraiser in New York in December, while other top rivals didn't do so until January or later.
McCain's campaign released its fundraising totals while he was on a fact-finding mission in Iraq.
While the senator acknowledged he "hoped to do better," his campaign manager, Terry Nelson, said in a statement: "Fundraising in the first quarter is no more important than fundraising throughout the entire primary election campaign."
Romney's total included an unexpected asterisk: a $2.35 million loan from the candidate himself. In January, the Republican stunned the field by raising $6.5 million on a single day in which he invited his supporters to Boston and asked them to call their professional and social circles for donations.
At that time, the millionaire venture capitalist said "it would be akin to a nightmare" if he donated to his campaign, although he reserved that right. On Monday, a senior adviser said Romney ended up lending the funds as "seed money" for his campaign. The adviser said Romney had done so before making his "nightmare" comment.
The prior records for first-quarter fundraising were held by Republican Phil Gramm of Texas and Democrat Al Gore of Tennessee. Gramm raised $8.7 million in 1995, while Gore raised $8.9 million in 1999. Gramm dropped out race before New Hampshire's 1996 primary, while Gore went on to win the 2000 Democratic nomination.