DEARBORN, Mich. -- Mitt Romney, a lesser-known Republican in a jam-packed presidential field, embarked on his White House bid Tuesday casting himself as a political outsider with the managerial skills necessary to fix a flawed Washington.
"We have lost faith in government," Romney said in his native state as he formally entered the 2008 race. "It is time for innovation and transformation in Washington. It is what our country needs. It is what our people deserve."
His political resume thin -- he served just one term as Massachusetts governor -- Romney sought to turn that potential weakness into a strength, portraying himself as the best candidate to meet the country's challenges given his venture capitalist background and proven leadership in the public, private and volunteer sectors.
In doing so, he attempted to draw a stark distinction between his qualifications and those of his top Republican rival, four-term Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is widely considered the GOP candidate to beat after losing to George W. Bush in 2000.
"I don't believe Washington can be transformed from within by lifetime politicians," Romney said, an obvious swipe at McCain without mentioning his name. "There have been too many deals, too many favors, too many entanglements -- and too little real world experience managing, guiding, leading."
"I don't believe Washington can be transformed by someone who has never tried doing such a thing before, in any setting, by someone who has never run a corner store, let alone the largest enterprise in the world," said Romney.
Although he is not well-known nationally and hardly registers in public opinion polls, Romney is considered a serious candidate in the same tier as McCain and former two-term New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Both political celebrities rank at the top of most polls. All three are expected to be able to raise the millions needed for a strong bid.
Yet, all three also have taken positions that don't necessarily sit well with the GOP's conservative base that is pivotal in deciding the outcome of the Republican primaries. Romney also faces doubts among some religious conservatives because if elected, he would be the first Mormon president.
Romney, who ran as a moderate in a failed 1994 Senate campaign and his winning gubernatorial campaign eight years later, is trying to convince the party faithful that he is a solid conservative and sincere in his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, two issues critical to the GOP base.
As he tries to runs to the right of McCain and Giuliani, Romney wants to avoid being seen as a Massachusetts liberal flip-flopper, a label that led to the downfall of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in his race against President Bush.
Hours after announcing his candidacy, Romney addressed some 300 people who braved the snow to see the candidate at the state fairgrounds in Iowa, the first stop on a campaign tour of the early voting states that will end with a major fundraiser in Boston.
Romney's shift on some issues didn't bother at least one voter.
"I know he's changed his views, but I'm satisfied," said David Bowen, who works at an agriculture seed company in Grimes, Iowa. "He has more solid social views than anyone, including the other Republicans."
Romney, 59, was a businessman who spent years amassing a fortune by helping found a venture capitalist firm that invested in fledgling businesses and guided them to grow into healthy corporations.
In 2002, he triumphantly turned the scandal-plagued Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City into a success. As governor, he led Massachusetts out of fiscal woes without raising taxes and pushed through a comprehensive overhaul of the health insurance system.
He hopes his record of accomplishment across those sectors will trump any uneasiness conservatives may have about his right-flank credentials and any skepticism they may feel about his Mormon faith.
Some 24 percent in a USA Today-Gallup poll released Tuesday said they would not vote for a Mormon. Almost half in a recent Newsweek poll said the nation is not ready to elect a Mormon president.
In a coming-out of sorts, Romney announced his long-expected candidacy in Michigan, the place of his birth and upbringing as well as an important stop on the path to the GOP nomination.
Just outside of Detroit, Romney laid out his campaign themes before several hundred sign-waving supporters at the sprawling Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. It was a site chosen for its emphasis on ingenuity that dramatically transformed the nation.
The past meeting the present, Romney spoke from a podium in front of an American Motors Corp., Rambler from yesteryear and a Ford Escape Hybrid in the airport-hangar-like museum. He invoked the memory of his late father, George, who served as governor in the 1960s and made an unsuccessful bid for president.
Romney's wife, Ann, his five grown sons, five daughters-in-law and 10 grandchildren sat off to the side of the main stage as he spoke of the need to strengthen families.
"America can't continue to lead the family of nations if we fail the families at home," he said, adding that values and morals are "under constant attack" and promoting families where a mother and a father are in each child's life.
At home, Romney called for reining in government, making it smaller and less bureaucratic with fewer regulations, and giving power and freedom back to the people, in part, in the form of lower taxes, better schools and more available health care.
On Iraq, Romney reiterated his support for President Bush's policy in the nearly four-year-old war, although he did not name the president, and said that failure in Iraq "could be devastating" for the United States and could mean a future with far more military involvement and far more loss of American life.
Associated Press Writers Henry C. Jackson in Des Moines, Iowa, and Will Lester in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.