WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney wanted to send a message when he took over as chief executive of the Salt Lake Olympic Games. So he moved the organization's Washington office from a well-appointed K Street law firm to a barren third-floor walk-up, wedged between a burrito shop and hair salon near the U.S. Capitol.
It was furnished with broken desks cast off by federal agencies. Its stairs were so steep that Cindy Gillespie, the head of federal relations for the Olympic committee, refused to have guests visit.
"It was a nightmare — I couldn't stand it," Gillespie recalled. "But Mitt just adored it. He thought it was totally appropriate."
The message, of course, was that frugality was the new watchword of the organization, which had been battered by revelations that Salt Lake officials had showered more than $1 million in gifts on International Olympic Committee members in their effort to land the 2002 Winter Games.
Scaling down the Washington office was one of the many moves that Romney made to wipe out the scars of profligate spending. Recruited in February 1999 to take over the beleaguered Olympic committee, Romney deferred his $280,000-a-year salary until the Games were over and its finances secure, then donated it to charity. (He had taken a leave from Bain Capital, but was still receiving substantial payments from it.) He got rid of catered food for board meetings and instead offered pizza at $1 a slice.
Romney frequently touts his success running the Olympics as an example of his strength as a chief executive. The experience also demonstrated his skills as an agile politician — one who touted the committee's new frugality and deftly parried questions about the role the Mormon Church would play in putting on the Games.
For some of those who worked with him then, it is an image at odds with what they've seen emerging from the 2012 campaign.
"The Mitt on the campaign trail is not the Mitt I knew as the leader of the Olympics," said Randy Dryer, a Democratic lawyer who served on the 53-member Salt Lake Olympic Committee board of trustees. "I chuckle when I hear news reports about Mitt being stiff and standoffish and having handlers who insulate him. He was accessible, he was personable, he was inclusive."
Former Democratic Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson, who is now running his own independent presidential bid, agreed: "It surprised me that during the course of this campaign that he's come off so out-of-touch and rather aloof; that's not the guy I ever dealt with."
The contrast speaks to how much in his element Romney felt as he worked to right the Games — an experience that propelled him into a successful run for governor of Massachusetts and his bids for the presidency — and to the inevitable constraints on a candidate waging a hard-fought national campaign.
"The difference is between someone who is day-to-day running something and someone who is out literally campaigning for a job," Gillespie said. "He's not one of those slap-you-on-the-back politicians. What he is is a leader."
Others argue that the path was smoothed for Romney's success at the Games.
"The Olympics was a controlled environment," said Ken Bullock, a member of the board who was one of Romney's few vocal critics. "Everyone wanted the Games to be successful. No one really challenged him."
From the start, Romney was cast by Salt Lake leaders as the "white knight" who would put the Olympics back on track. The scandal had deeply demoralized the local staff and threatened to sour sponsors as the committee sought to raise the final $400 million needed to meet its original $1.45 billion budget.
Romney demonstrated a canny understanding of how to maximize his role as Mr. Fix-It.
"One of the masterful things Mitt did early on was that he lowered everyone's expectations," Dryer said, noting that Romney regularly joked that Salt Lake's Olympic caldron was on track to be a Weber grill.
When it came to sorting out the organization's complex finances, he did it "the Bain way," said Fraser Bullock, a former Bain Capital partner whom Romney persuaded to come aboard as chief operating officer. "He went through the budget, line by line."
Once fully versed in the committee's finances, Romney sought to win over wary public officials with a barrage of information. Washington lawmakers he met with were subjected to "a 40-page PowerPoint," Gillespie recalled. "He was treating them like executives."
The tactic worked, she said: "They respected him and knew he wasn't hiding anything."
Romney frequently cited the committee's transparency in an effort to bolster its image. As part of a reform effort that began before his hiring, board meetings were opened to the public and a reading room was created where lists of vendor contracts and top donors could be perused.
The organization's commitment to openness was questioned by some critics and media organizations, who sought greater details about the budget and legal payments related to the bribery allegations.
But Romney did push to make public some key materials related to the controversy. At one point, he surprised the board and irritated many in the IOC by releasing a decade-old memo that listed personal details about IOC members whom previous bid leaders had tried to influence.
"Given where we had come from, and given the scandal that apparently grew out of obfuscation, the only way I believe we could have restored confidence was with disclosure," he wrote in "Turnaround," his 2004 book about the experience.
Romney's critics contend that he has not shown the same commitment to openness in his campaign, citing as evidence his refusal to name key fundraisers or release more than two years of income tax returns.
They also note a difference in his approach to dealing with questions surrounding the Mormon Church. During the Olympics, he dealt directly with public concerns raised about the church's influence over the Games. During the presidential campaign, however, he has been reticent about his faith.
About a year before the opening ceremonies, the notion took hold in the media that the event would be "the Mormon Games," given the church's headquarters in Salt Lake.
It was a thorny issue because Romney — who had held leadership positions in his Boston ward —- had asked the church to contribute an array of assets, including a downtown parking lot to be used for the medals plaza, performances by the Tabernacle Choir and volunteer help from church members.
The church's participation exacerbated long-standing anxieties in Salt Lake about its power. The matter became more inflamed when Romney said that alcohol should not be served at the medals plaza, partly in deference to the church's prohibition on alcohol consumption.
After living in Massachusetts, where the church has a relatively small presence, Romney was initially caught off guard by the sharp reaction to its perceived influence. "He was surprised by the sensitivities here in the community relative to that," said Fraser Bullock.
But Romney quickly recognized the risk. In March 2001, days before the Salt Lake Tribune was set to publish a long report chronicling the church's involvement in the Games, Romney hastily called a news conference with a group of non-Mormon clergy, athletes and Olympic organizers and pointedly gave them glasses of champagne to toast the upcoming event. He called the focus on the church "divisive and demeaning."
"These are not Mormon Games," he said. "These are Games for America."
He then quietly consulted with church leaders to pare down the committee's list of requests. And the church lowered its profile, dropping plans to sponsor a media center.
"I think what he learned from that was, as you go forward, you have to be very sensitive to any of those issues of misperception that are out there," Bullock said.
The controversy faded by the time the Games rolled around. Even before the opening ceremony, Romney was applauded for producing a successful event, leaving a nearly $100-million surplus on a pared-down $1.3-billion budget. He told reporters that he could never imagine an experience that would top the Olympics.
But already, it was clear there was another goal. On the eve of the Games, Ann Romney told the Los Angeles Times: "I truly want Mitt to fulfill his destiny and for that to happen, he's got to do politics."
Melanie Mason in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.