LAS VEGAS — Mitt Romney's running a classic establishment campaign: Spend years stumping for others, collect big-name endorsements and create advisory teams full of high-profile players from past administrations.
But is this a bad year to be branded an insider? Tea party activists, who are influential in Republican politics, think so.
"2012 is definitely not a good year for establishment candidates," said Mark Meckler, co-founder and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, a grassroots activist group that does not endorse candidates. "Much like 2010, for the most part, being 'establishment' will work against people."
Romney advisers shrug off such skepticism.
"No," top strategist Stuart Stevens answered flatly when asked if the perception was a concern. His candidate, he said, has a record as a "conservative businessman, and that's what people are looking for."
But Romney's connections give his rivals a lot to work with as they try to paint the former Massachusetts governor — and son of a one-time Michigan governor and Nixon administration cabinet secretary — as a lifelong insider unaccustomed to listening to ordinary folks.
Romney is "using an old model for winning," said Keith Nahigian, campaign manager for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who's in her third House of Representatives term.
She and other candidates, notably businessman Herman Cain, who has never held political office, pitch themselves as outsiders. So does Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who declared, "I am not the candidate of the establishment," before a gathering of Western Republican activists last week. Perry has held statewide Texas offices since 1990.
But in recent presidential nomination contests, the strategy Romney is pursuing usually has worked.
"There are aspects to being the establishment candidate that infuriate a lot of tea party people," said Tim Hagle, a Republican activist and associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. "But a lot of Republicans like candidates with a pretty good working knowledge of government."
Romney's campaign model relies on superior organization, heavy fundraising and a loyal corps of local officials all over the nation. Traditionally that approach triumphs over less well-organized insurgents with fewer funds who aim to be the outsiders' alternative.
Richard Nixon pioneered the modern model. He was regarded as finished after losing the presidency in 1960 and the California governorship two years later. But in 1966, after the GOP was battered in the 1964 election, he traveled the country stumping for 86 Republican candidates for Congress or governor, and 59 won.
Nixon thus had a strong network of supporters when he sought the presidential nomination in 1968. He won the nod fairly easily — especially after the campaign of Romney's father, George, then governor of Michigan, imploded after an ill-advised comment about the Vietnam War.
Others since have followed Nixon's path. Ronald Reagan built loyalty across the country with his relentless campaigning and fundraising in the late 1970s. Former Vice President Walter Mondale collected key Democratic endorsements, notably among elected officials and labor unions, to build the network he needed to thwart insurgent Gary Hart in 1984.
More recently, former Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, in 1996, and Vice President Al Gore, in 2000, used their insider connections to triumph over less well-organized grassroots challengers.
Romney is following their blueprint.
Last year he appeared at 33 rallies, fundraisers or bus tours for Republican congressional candidates, 59 events for state candidates and 30 other conservative or Republican events.
His candidacy boasts a 23-page single-spaced list of endorsements from state and party officials, including three governors, four U.S. senators and 25 U.S. representatives.
Romney's advisory teams resemble a George W. Bush administration boardroom. His economic plan was crafted with the help of two Bush Council of Economic Advisers chairmen. Trade advisers include a former Bush commerce secretary, Carlos Gutierrez. The veterans advisory group includes two Bush administration secretaries of veterans affairs.
Romney's foreign policy "special advisers" include Michael Chertoff, a former Bush homeland security secretary, and Michael Hayden, a former Bush CIA and National Security Agency director.
The consensus of political pros is that Romney's ties to the establishment "definitely help," as New Hampshire Republican consultant Fergus Cullen put it.
The network, he said, could work well in a small state like New Hampshire, which has 400 state representatives. Most also work in their communities, and because they represent relatively small constituencies, they're usually well known and visible.
"If I'm getting a new car, I call my friends who know about cars," Cullen said. "So if a candidate has public officials behind him, those people can reach hundreds of rank-and-file voters."
And lots of voters like Romney's associations. He's at or near the top of most national GOP preference polls, as well as those in the key early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
"We need someone who knows business and government and all the ramifications, global and domestic," said Russ Bateman, a retired Las Vegas stockbroker.
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