ROMNEY LAUNCHES EXPLORATORY COMMITTEE…. With the Iowa caucuses less than 10 months away, we’ve been waiting for this vaunted Republican presidential field to actually have some announced candidates. Among the credible contenders, Tim Pawlenty was first to form an exploratory committee, launching a bid three weeks ago.

Today, he got a little company.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney formed a presidential exploratory committee today that will allow him to raise money for a near-certain run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

“It is time that we put America back on a course of greatness with a growing economy, good jobs and fiscal discipline in Washington,” Romney said in a web video announcing his intentions.

In the video, Romney focuses almost exclusively on the economy, touting his experience in creating jobs and balancing budgets in the private sector.

By most measures, Romney starts the race as the apparent frontrunner, but he should also be considered one of the weakest presidential frontrunners in quite a while. GOP officials in a variety of circles recognize that the former Massachusetts governor appears to be leading the pack, and keep asking, “So, who else is out there?”

If I were a betting man, I’d say Romney’s odds of winning the nomination are fairly good, but that’s primarily the result of an otherwise weak field, and it’s pretty easy to imagine the GOP base turning on him.

Indeed, his Republican rivals — likely to gang up on him from the outset — probably look at Romney like a pinata waiting to get hit. We’re talking about a former pro-choice governor who supported gay rights, gun control, and combating climate change, who distanced himself from Reagan, who loved a health care mandate, and who attended Planned Parenthood fundraisers. Perhaps no one in American public life over the last generation has changed his mind about so many issues, so quickly. Mitt Romney, for all intends and purposes, personifies the “flip-flopper.”

I’ve heard more than a few jokes this afternoon saying, Romney today says he’s launching an exploratory committee, but don’t be surprised if he says the opposite tomorrow.

Worse, his sole gubernatorial accomplishment served as a blueprint for President Obama’s health care policy. In fact, the timing of Romney’s launch may not be entirely coincidental — this week is the fifth anniversary of the former governor signing his health care reform measure into law in the Bay State, and it’s more than possible he’s hoping that launching his presidential bid will overshadow the anniversary.

As for the jobs record Romney is so excited to talk about, he was governor of Massachusetts for four years, and during that time, his state’s record on job creation was “one of the worst in the country.” Adding insult to injury, “By the end of his four years in office, Massachusetts had squeezed out a net gain in payroll jobs of just 1 percent, compared with job growth of 5.3 percent for the nation as a whole.”

How bad is Romney’s record? During his tenure, Massachusetts ranked 47th out of 50 states in jobs growth. There’s a reason he didn’t seek re-election — Romney was wildly unpopular in his home state after one term.

Taken together, I can see why Romney is the arguable favorite — he has high name recognition, a lot of money, and a credible operation — but I can also see why no one in either party is necessarily afraid of him.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.