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A Changed Man

Will the real Mitt Romney please stand up? The Republican presidential candidate fields questions at an
Will the real Mitt Romney please stand up? The Republican presidential candidate fields questions at an "Ask Mitt Anything" session in Charleston, S.C. (By Grace Beahm -- The Post And Courier)

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By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

CHARLESTON, S.C.

Like every great sales pitch, Mitt Romney's case for Mitt Romney is low on the hard sell.

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At the Sheraton Hotel here one recent morning, the boasting is handled by a former governor of South Carolina, who opens this "Ask Mitt Anything" session with a precis of the candidate's career. This includes academic achievements (Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School "in four years!") and election as governor of Massachusetts in 2002, which is described in a tone befitting a miracle.

"He ran for governor in the bluest state of all blue states," says James Edwards, "the bluest state you can think of, as a conservative Republican, and he won 51 percent of the vote in a four-way race without a runoff!"

Romney deflects the praise with a regionally tailored quip. "It's like that song, maybe you've heard it," he says, about to quote country star Toby Keith. " 'I ain't as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was.' " He's an unlikely honky-tonker, this 60-year-old who's spent his adult life in the suburbs of Boston and looks like the mayor of whatever town the Cleavers lived in. During his pre-Q&A remarks, Romney speaks with an assortment of golly-geeisms straight out of the '50s, with lots of sunny talk about values, the importance of a big military, the virtues of small government. He repeats the word "strong" so often you'd think he's earning royalties from it.

"People in this country, they warm to the message that I've described -- of a strong America, a strong military, strong economic vitality and strong families," he says.

As a performance, it's smooth, folksy and winningly sincere. But it doesn't sound much like the man who won that vote in Massachusetts. That Romney positioned himself, and for a while governed as, a moderate: in favor of abortion rights, courting gay voters and crusading on environmental matters in a way that had the state's green activists pinching themselves with joy.

He now says his pro-choice leanings were a mistake. He has become one of the country's highest-profile opponents of gay marriage, and he warns against taking Al Gore's side regarding action on global warming.

Many candidates change. Romney seems to have given himself a makeover. Which has prompted more than a few people to ask: Who is this guy?

The search for an Overarching Theory of Mitt has been a preoccupation in Massachusetts, where his journey rightward played out in a highly public way. His fans say he simply evolved; his detractors call him a flip-flopper. But talk to those who've watched him longest, and some who were personally wooed during his run for governor, and you'll hear something else. The man is a born salesman, they say, and he has taken the modus operandi of selling to a whole different level in the world of politics.

"To Mitt Romney, politics is just another product," says Jeffrey Berry, a professor of politics at Tufts University and longtime Romney watcher. "Products can be recast, reshaped and remarketed in endless ways. Now, that might sound cynical, but Mitt isn't a charlatan. He's simply had so much success in the business world that his approach in that realm seems like the natural way of doing things."

Venturing Into Capital

All politicians must sell, of course, but none is steeped in the art of the sale quite like Romney. It's a talent he inherited from his father, a three-term governor of Michigan who once ran American Motors Corp. and logged thousands of miles to push its compact cars. A Time magazine cover story in 1959 recounted his visits to women's clubs, where his patter included the line, "Ladies! Why do you drive such big cars?"


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