Mitt Romney is the earnest, overachieving school kid in the front row, his right arm thrust high and fingers fluttering in the air, straining to get the attention of the teacher. Mitt's got the answer. He always does.
Among all the Republican candidates for president, the chronically striving Romney might be the smartest guy in the room. Armed with a law degree and a master's of business administration from Harvard, he's the well-prepped answer man on health care and immigration, and quick-draw responder to the urgent events of the media moment.
Sen. Larry Craig in the airport men's room? Disgusting.
Letting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speak? Outrageous.
What to do with Guantanamo? Triple it.
But left unanswered is whether Mitt Romney, the Mormon Yankee with centrist political roots, is the real capital "C" conservative for whom the GOP faithful yearn or merely an ideological windsock, an ambitious pol who expediently tacked hard to starboard on abortion, gay marriage and gun rights.
Is the smartest guy in the room trying too hard to prove to GOP voters that he's what they want him to be?
In the litmus-test oriented Republican Party, taking the right positions on the right issues might not be enough for Romney because, for the first time since John F. Kennedy battled anti-Catholic bias in 1960, religion -- Romney's Mormonism -- is the rumbling subplot in the campaign.
"Would Jesus Christ Vote for Mitt Romney?" asked a flier distributed in Iowa this year. The implied answer was "no."
If these are troubling questions, they do not seem to faze the resilient Romney, a master salesman who travels light and doesn't let his baggage -- or his history -- get in the way. He's an optimistic, clean-living guy of seemingly boundless energy. Known as a business turnaround wizard, Romney is accustomed to success.
"I didn't plan on getting involved in politics," Romney always tells audiences, as if handing out the calling card that reads, "Have no fear -- I'm not from Washington."
The 60-year-old Romney has been knocking on doors, in one fashion or another, for more than four decades, seeking religious converts in France, lining up investors for his highly successful venture capital business in Boston, twisting arms of sponsors and Congress to save the scandal-ridden 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and going after votes for his 1994 U.S. Senate bid (he lost) and his 2002 run for governor (he won).
His is a remarkable story of perseverance and success, with tendencies to perfectionism. Romney is smooth and polished, almost to a fault. His perfectly slicked hair will be someone's idea of a metaphor. Where George W. Bush was embraced as folksy and genuine, Romney -- especially on TV -- can come across as programmed. At a time when a lot of Americans like their presidents to be someone they could envision sitting with and having a drink, the best you could hope for with Mitt Romney is belting down a decaffeinated vanilla Coke.
The slim, 6-foot-2-inch Romney doesn't drink alcohol or caffeine. He doesn't smoke and has rarely been heard to swear. He's been married to the same woman, his high school sweetheart, for 38 years. Gray hair has invaded only his temples. He's a fitness freak, running four or five times a week, and is sartorially sleek , first team All Brooks Brothers.
On the campaign trail, he travels with a one-gallon Ziploc bag of homemade granola, baked by his wife, Ann. The Romneys have five handsome boys, who cheerfully help drive the "Mitt Mobile" around the country for Dad. A sunny optimist, Mitt Romney has a gee-whiz, can-do spirit of one of the Hardy Boys.
All of this recently prompted Jon Stewart of Comedy Central to put into words what the politically minded have long wondered: "Is this guy human?"
To these and other questions, Romney pays no heed, at least not publicly. There are places to go and door-knocking to do.
"I spent my life in the private sector," Romney emphasizes in his stump speech, this one at a flour factory in the steamy South Carolina capital of Columbia. Standing before klieg lights and in front of an American flag, the crisply pressed Romney fielded friendly questions during another episode of the traveling road show called "Ask Mitt Anything." Far from confrontational, it has the happy talk feel of a quiz show, with questions asked by Grace from Columbia, Sheila from Lexington and other good folks sweating in metal folding chairs and sporting blue Romney lapel stickers.
With a finger wave from his left hand, Romney smiles and brings to mind Bob Barker -- smooth, affable, occasionally funny and never offending, never angry. At the same time, Romney maintains his heat-seeking instinct for issues dear to the conservative faithful.
Cut taxes, kill terrorists, win the war, make no special deals for immigrants. And honor the free market.
"In the private sector, if all you can do is talk, you'd be out of a job in about six months when they figure that out," Romney says. "In the government sector, it's the other way around. People talk and talk and talk and never get anything done."
It's a familiar refrain. Anyone who pays attention to presidential politics has heard the story of the diligent, Mr. Fixit outsider -- often with successful private sector experience -- mighty frustrated with the ways of Washington and champing at the bit to get to the White House to clean up that awful mess. Ross Perot said it. George W. Bush said it.
And so did Romney's father, George Romney, the damn-the-torpedoes, three-time governor of Michigan and the visionary automobile executive who, way back in the 1950s, rescued the struggling American Motors Corp. and championed the compact car, the Rambler.
In the Romney family history of political activism, George and Mitt are the bookends, spanning the late 1950s era of moderate Eisenhower Republicanism to the current-day Reagan conservatism. George is the coarse leather binding, Mitt the glossy jacket. George once ripped the lapel off the coat of a state senator during a disagreement. Even the strongest Democratic critics in Boston describe Mitt, when he was governor, as cordial, pleasant and polite in meetings.
It was George's presidential campaign that imploded 40 years ago during a Detroit television station interview when he candidly told the host his previous support of the Vietnam War was the result of a "brainwashing" by generals and diplomats.
Although the son's self-promotional message is firmly attached to the private sector, he learned politics at the knee of his father. Mitt Romney's thermostat is set lower, and his manner is more cautious and calculating. And he seems determined not to make his father's mistakes.
Willard Mitt Romney -- Willard for the founder of the Marriott hotel chain, Mitt for a family relative and 1920s-era Chicago Bears quarterback (Mitt Romney) -- was often inclined to question, even as a youngster. When George would take the children to see the new line of cars at American Motors, he'd ask them what they thought.
"My sisters and I would say, 'This looks great,'" recalls older brother Scott Romney, "and Mitt would say, 'If Ramblers are such great cars, why doesn't everybody drive them?'"
This kind of questioning would signal the beginnings of what would develop into an almost laserlike focus on business and management problems, and how to fix them. Mitt is assiduously observant, a "good learner" with an uncanny understanding of complexity, a colleague says.
After obtaining -- simultaneously -- business and law degrees from Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, Romney began his career in 1975 as a business consultant, eventually attracting the attention of Boston-based Bain & Co. In 1985 Romney was tapped to run an investment firm called Bain Capital, a fledgling venture capital firm.
Over the next 15 years, Romney led Bain Capital to astounding growth, doubling the firm's annual returns every year. Clayton Christensen was a colleague and later a venture capital competitor of Romney's, and he recalled a mid-1980s phone call he received one day from Romney, asking him where he bought his office stationery.
"Would you do me a favor and buy stationery at Staples? I really believe this place could succeed," Christensen remembered Romney saying. "Not a lot of venture capitalists would do that."
Staples would be one of the great American business success stories. It's an $18 billion company with 1,700 stores. Christensen, now a professor at Harvard Business School, describes Romney as "a great helicopter pilot. He can go down to the level of detail to see what a person needs and can go up to see the big picture and then fly away when he has the right people in place," Christensen said.
Romney's personal wealth, now estimated at up to $250 million, soared on the wings of his success. But what set him apart from other business whizzes featured in friendly profiles of glossy magazines was the decision Romney made in summer 1996. The 14-year-old daughter of a Bain partner was missing in New York City. In an extraordinary move for the easy money days of the mid-'90s, Bain shut down for a week while Romney and dozens of other employees flew to New York to walk the streets in search of the girl. They set up a command center in a hotel. They didn't find her, but she turned up a week later, safe in New Jersey.
Romney's friends and associates offer these and other stories as evidence of personal kindnesses that help explain the Romney family DNA.
"You had a responsibility to participate and to give back. That's what he preached to us," said Scott Romney, talking about his father. In the turbulent 1960s, the Romney dinner table discussion would focus on civil rights, the war in Vietnam and women's rights.
"With Dad, there was always another mountain to climb, another crusade to lead," Scott Romney said.
J. Bonner Ritchie, a family friend and professor emeritus at Brigham Young University, said the Romneys have a worldview that "shows a moral landscape that needs fixing. I think that's honest. It's not a gimmick," Ritchie said.
The political itch that drew George Romney into politics and Lenore Romney, Mitt's mother, into a run for the U.S. Senate in 1970 infected their youngest child, who shocked his Bain colleagues when he announced his intention to challenge the Massachusetts icon, Democratic U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, in 1994.
Philip Barlow, who worked with Romney on Mormon Church matters at Romney's suburban Boston home in the early 1980s, said the decision -- in retrospect -- should have surprised no one.
"Mitt would talk to me about the Romney propensity to swim upstream," said Barlow, who is now the chairman of the department of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University. "He said it was very powerful."
Scott Romney remembers his brother comparing the campaign to a "leveraged buyout."
"There was never one day he thought he was going to win," he said. Romney ran as a moderate Republican, rejecting the party dictates on abortion and gun control, and counseling tolerance on gay rights. Kennedy creamed him, 58 percent to 41 percent.
"Mitt hated it. It was so hard," Scott Romney recalled. "He told me he never would run again unless he thought he would win."
It was a pivotal moment for a man unaccustomed to losing. The Romney propensity to swim upstream was under review.
The pain of the loss would not soon go away. Even before Romney was called in 1999 to rescue the scandal-plagued Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, he was thinking about running for president, Scott Romney said. The two men talked about it during a beach walk at the Romney family's summer home, about an hour north of Sarnia, Ontario, on Lake Huron
"I thought to myself, 'He hadn't even won dogcatcher yet," Scott Romney recalled.
There was never a thought given to sticking a foot in the door when young Mitt Romney, on a 21/2-year Mormon mission in the 1960s, knocked on doors in LeHavre, France. That's because doors tended to close quickly and, even among the most resilient, there was little expectation Mormon missionaries would win many converts in that overwhelmingly Catholic nation.
"Fewer than 10," is how Romney described his score card, holding out the fingers of both hands.
Once he moved from souls to votes, the odds improved immeasurably for Romney, who ran successfully for governor of Massachusetts in 2002 as the businessman who would restore fiscal order to the State House on Beacon Street.
Romney "was like the CEO of the state," said John McDonough, a former Massachusetts state senator and current executive director of Health Care for All, one of the groups involved in negotiations for the state's nearly universal health-care plan, which is paid for by a combination of payments from individuals, businesses and a hefty dollop of federal funds.
"I give him credit that he decided to do something for access for the uninsured. He stuck with it. A lot of governors would have lost patience and walked away," McDonough said.
While the health-insurance law was the signature legislative accomplishment during his four years in office, he left a legacy of redefining himself, altering his positions on abortion (becoming an opponent), gay rights (becoming a strong supporter of gay-marriage bans) and gun rights, becoming a champion of the National Rifle Association.
The changes have provoked the inevitable comparisons to the resolute George Romney. Former Michigan Gov. William Milliken was Romney's lieutenant governor in the 1960s, and he said Mitt "brings to mind a line from Groucho Marx: 'These are my principles, and if you don't agree with me, then here, I have some others,'" said Milliken, a Republican.
In heavily Democratic Massachusetts, which Romney uses as a punching bag to court GOP votes, even Republicans say they are surprised by the new Romney.
"I have tremendous disappointment with the way he speaks now as compared to the way he spoke against Kennedy, especially on social issues," said Arthur Chase, a former Republican state senator and candidate for secretary of state in 1994. "Though he has tremendous ability, I'm not sure anyone knows what he believes because we've heard both sides. ... You don't change that quickly."
For his part, Romney said he simply changed his mind on abortion, after long thought. Other criticisms he dismissed as the actions of critics trying to "define" him. His salesman's foot has found itself inside the door of Iowa, where he won the straw poll in August. He is moving on.
Now, 40 years after his Mormon mission, Romney is in the Baptist Bible Belt of South Carolina, selling himself in the land that Flannery O'Connor called "Christ-Haunted," a nod to the region's concerns about modernism.
That attitude might well apply to 19th Century religions. A recent national poll found that 25 percent of all voters say they have reservations about voting for a Mormon for president. In South Carolina, the Mormon Church is viewed as competition, said Oran Smith, president of the Palmetto Family Council, a conservative family values-based organization in Columbia.
"I think in the mind of a lot of evangelicals, this [Mormonism] is a serious competitor," Smith said. Mormonism never became an issue when George Romney ran for president. Today, though, the Republican Party and evangelical Christians have formed a powerful political bond.
Bounding from Myrtle Beach to Charleston, Columbia, Aiken and Greenville, Romney preaches the same conservative themes of nearly all of his Republican competitors, eager for the blessing of voters who hold Ronald Reagan in the highest regard.
Five Mormons have run for president -- Joseph Smith, Morris Udall, Orrin Hatch, George Romney and his youngest son. Evangelicals and Mormons share some traits: conservatism, a concern for traditional family values, optimism and resilience. But they are deeply divided over theology. Mitt Romney doesn't talk about his Mormon religion -- unless he's asked.
"In the final analysis, people want a person of faith to lead the country, but they're not going to choose their leader based on what church they go to," said Romney in Columbia, sounding very much like a man well-prepped for the question.