The previously circus-like campaign for the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nomination took a distinct turn for the serious last week with the official entry into the race of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The presumptive front-runner in the race before he formally announced, Romney isn’t an exciting candidate, but he is a serious one.

Which puts him miles ahead of some others who have threatened to seek the White House next year, including real estate mogul/media magnet Donald Trump, whose brief flirtation with the presidential race nearly turned the whole thing into a joke.

Romney has plenty of problems in his own right, however. His most notable accomplishment as Massachusetts governor — a statewide health care plan that looks a lot like the national plan many Republicans derisively call “Obamacare” — is a particularly painful thorn in his side. Then there’s his Mormon religion, which he can’t seem to decide if he wants to embrace or run from. And there’s his reputed inability to “connect” with voters.

He looks and sounds presidential, for whatever that’s worth, but lots of Republicans apparently find it darn near impossible to close their eyes and imagine him in the Oval Office. “President Romney,” so far, is a phrase that just doesn’t seem to resonate with the folks who will choose someone to head up the Grand Old Party’s national ticket.

Romney has plenty of time to change all that, of course, with the first primaries and caucuses still months away. But it won’t be easy in a crowded field that already includes several contenders who are favorites of the GOP’s powerful tea party movement and could soon include tea party icon Michele Bachmann.

And don’t count out Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has all the conservative credentials that Republican primary voters demand and who, as MaineToday Media Publisher Richard Connor points out in his column today, has demonstrated a well-honed talent for winning elections.

What, did we forget to mention former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, 2008 vice presidential candidate/social media superstar Sarah Palin, ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani …?

With all these folks breathing down his neck, you’d think Obama would be shaking in his boots. Maybe he is, but he doesn’t show it. He looks like a man who doesn’t have a care in the world, even though the nation’s unemployment rate just upticked to 9.1 percent and Congress can’t come to grips with the pressing need for a federal budget.

Maybe the president figures all those would-be Republican challengers will shout each other down and cancel each other out, or perhaps annoy the country with their intra-party squabbling to a point that leaves him looking like the only person on the scene who’s sensible enough to be commander-in-chief.

That’s one possibility, to be sure. But a more likely scenario is that one of the GOP contenders will emerge as a legitimate candidate for president, as a plausible alternative to the incumbent president, and that candidate will give Obama all he can handle in next year’s presidential race.

It’s a race that will determine the future direction of the country, good or bad, and voters deserve a meaningful, competitive campaign. Last week’s turn for the serious didn’t come a moment too soon.