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A Changed Man
Mitt Romney's Ideological Turnabout Has Critics Wondering: Who Is This Guy?

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.

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?"

After the younger Romney collected those Harvard degrees, he spent more than a dozen years as a venture capitalist, a job that requires you to pitch to companies (so they will let you acquire them) and to banks (so they will issue loans) and to investors (so they will invest).

As CEO of Bain Capital, a Boston-based firm that he founded in 1984, Romney bought all or parts of companies selling mattresses (Sealy), sneakers (Sports Authority), vibrating massage chairs (Brookstone), pizza (Domino's) and corporations in fields such as telecommunications, broadcasting, food service and on and on. Bain started with $37 million under management; by the time he left in 1999, that figure was more than $4 billion.

The job that followed, running the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, was a sell-a-thon, too. "Turnaround," his book about that experience, is unique among candidate bios in its attempt to wring drama from a cross-country rush to lock down sponsorship deals. This includes an eleventh-hour, face-to-face pitch to Gateway, from whom Romney hoped to get 5,000 computers.

"We have to know right away," Romney quotes himself saying to then-Gateway CEO Jeff Weitzen. "We have to start buying computers, or get them from you."

Romney clinched that deal. His only rough patch in the realm of persuasion came in his late teens, in France, where he served as a Mormon missionary, and went door to door evangelizing for his church. He tried everything to win converts -- singing, playing basketball, even giving lectures on archaeology, according to a letter he sent to his parents at the time, published recently by the Boston Globe. Nothing worked.

But he didn't hear a lot of "non merci" after that. Eventually he built a personal fortune pegged in the neighborhood of $350 million in the private sector. His latest pitch, for the Oval Office, is going poorly or pretty well, depending on whether you're talking about the whole country or key primary states. Nationally, Romney shows up in fourth place in polls, and he has lost the huge lead he once held in New Hampshire, where he's currently tied for first with former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. He's leading, however, in Iowa. During a recent swing through South Carolina, he drew decent crowds and plenty of voters who were impressed with his background.

"He got elected in Massachusetts, which I consider a breakaway state of the Soviet Union," said Carl Langley, a retired newspaper columnist, after an "Ask Mitt Anything" event in Aiken, S.C.

What earned him that job in Massachusetts, though, is an idea that he doesn't mention much any longer. Back in 2002, he emphasized one promise, time and again: He would be the state's No. 1 salesman.

"There's virtually not a chief executive officer in the country that won't let me in to sit down with them in their office to pitch Massachusetts," Romney said at a typical campaign appearance in 2002, before the Massachusetts Software & Internet Council. "And that is what I'll do, inside Massachusetts, outside Massachusetts, outside of our country, to encourage businesses to come grow and thrive in the most robust portion of the economy, Massachusetts."

'Hearts Were Broken'

At that time, Romney deflected many of the social-conservative issues that he now embraces, and he charmed a handful of left-leaning interest groups who might otherwise have been enemies. A few of them say they wound up with the political version of buyer's remorse.

Including NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. In September 2002, at a face-to-face meeting at Romney's headquarters in Cambridge, Romney assured a delegation from the group that, no, he would not impinge on abortion rights. And yes, he would like to see easier access to emergency contraceptives, such as Plan B. He closed the meeting by taking on a just-between-us tone and saying, essentially, You need Republicans like me. And the party needs candidates like me, because this issue is killing the party, according to Melissa Kogut, who was then executive director of the organization. He didn't expect an endorsement, he told her, but he hoped the organization would refrain from attacking him during the campaign.

Which the group did, stressing instead its support for Democrat Shannon O'Brien. Kogut said at a news conference before the election that it would be "dangerous" not to elect a leader on this issue, but that's a long way from the war she and her colleagues would have declared against an antiabortion candidate.

Romney also awed the state's Log Cabin chapter, meeting with the gay Republican group in October 2002 and wowing attendees with opinions on domestic-partnership benefits in the workplace (he was for them) and discrimination based on sexual orientation (strongly against).

He spoke against gay marriage, one attendee recalls, but it sounded as if he could countenance civil unions when he said, "Just don't use the M-word." He emphasized themes of tolerance and respect, and by the end of the meeting Log Cabin members were pretty dazzled. After Romney left, the group unanimously voted to endorse him.

Environmentalists, meantime, were amazed to discover that this uber-capitalist seemed pretty much a Greenpeace fantasy. Once elected, he brought environmental activists into the fold, among them Douglas Foy, the formidable president of the Conservation Law Foundation, who was given a newly created Cabinet-level job. And not long after he was sworn in, Romney went to the oil- and coal-fired Salem Harbor Station power plant and threatened to shut it down if its owners didn't meet a deadline to slash nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions.

"If the choice is between dirty power plants or protecting the health of the people of Massachusetts, there is no choice in my mind," he said at an impromptu news conference, in February 2003, while hard-hat-wearing workers at the plant jeered.

But two years into his term, Moderate Romney started to vanish. NARAL's detente lasted until July 2005, when the governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed pharmacists to provide emergency contraceptives to women without a prescription -- a total 180 from his avowal during the NARAL meeting. Kogut, the group's former executive director, phoned the governor's office but, she says, he never called back.

"We felt completely played," she recalls. "We just couldn't believe it, given what he'd said to our faces."

The comity with gay voters was even briefer. In 2003, the state Supreme Judicial Court voted to legalize gay marriage, forcing Romney to take a stand on an issue that he had not discussed much during his campaign. At first he tried to find a middle ground, stressing both his opposition to the ruling and his hope that the legislature would pass laws providing some rights for same-sex couples, including civil unions. "The governor is not a crusader," said spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom after the ruling. "He did not come to office to crusade for or against gay rights."

But by 2004, Romney was one of the country's most vocal critics of gay marriage, and in 2005 he backed a state constitutional amendment that would ban not just gay marriage but civil unions, too. (The governor said at the time that he had supported civil unions in the past because gay marriage seemed like the only alternative; in his ideal world, he told the media, there would be no civil unions either.) The following year, he took his gay-marriage opposition on the road, pushing for a similar constitutional amendment in South Carolina, pledging $5,000 through his political action committee and promising to show up and campaign on the amendment's behalf.

By then, some Log Cabin Republicans were saying they'd been snookered.

"He shakes your hand, looks you in the eye," says Richard Babson, a Log Cabin member who attended the Romney meeting. "It's hard for me to know what Mitt Romney's first principles are on a given day."

Last week, the Log Cabin Republicans went public with their anger, running a TV ad that lambastes Romney by including video clips of his pro-choice, pro-gun-control stands as a candidate in Massachusetts.

If the gay-rights crowd sounds bitterly disappointed, the state's environmentalists sound like they'd gotten punk'd. By the end of his term, Romney had announced his support for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He'd supported an easing of regulations on power-plant cleanup, including Salem Harbor, the site of that confrontation. And he'd pulled out of a historic seven-state agreement designed to reduce greenhouse gases, an effort he'd initially championed.

"Hearts were broken," says Seth Kaplan of the Conservation Law Foundation. "That's the best way I can put it. And when someone is an unexpected advocate, like Romney was, it builds up your hopes and breaks your heart even more."

Most trace the turning point to the elections of 2004, when Romney backed a slate of Republican candidates, hoping to loosen the Democratic hold on the state legislature. When the GOP gained not a single seat, he seemed to abandon interest in a second term and set his sights on a run for the presidency.

That's not to say he gave up on the governor's job; in 2006, for example, he signed into law an ambitious health insurance bill that mandated coverage for all Massachusetts residents by July of this year. But he began traveling regularly outside the state for campaign-like, get-to-know-me appearances, more than 100 trips in 2005 and 2006, the Boston Globe reported. He stopped selling Massachusetts and started to make it the butt of jokes, telling out-of-state audiences that his job made him feel like "a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention."

Even some members of the business community were let down.

"Everyone knew that rebuilding the economy here would be 40 miles of hard road, and Mitt bailed out after five miles," says Howard Anderson, a professor of business at MIT and a longtime investor in Bain Capital who has known Romney for years. "At some point, we in the venture capital community became skeptics, and that eventually turned into rampant cynicism."

Anderson has nothing but praise for Romney's performance as Bain CEO, describing him as a smart, consensus-building leader with terrific judgment, a man of integrity who was exceptionally generous to partners. Squaring Romney the executive with Romney the politician is something Anderson has never been able to do.

"It's as though he's let the market dictate his ideology, which is something no one who knew him in the private sector ever saw coming. Not a hint."

The Real Romney?

Romney's supporters acknowledge that he moved to the right during his years as governor, but they think the distance he traveled is no further than that of other great politicians. (Reagan, once a Democrat, is mentioned often.) They stress his competence, intelligence and leadership skills as well as his talent as a fiscal manager. His campaign says that when he took office, Massachusetts faced a deficit of $3 billion and when he left, it had a surplus.

"The people of Massachusetts will remember Mitt Romney as a person who came into office during a financial emergency, balanced the budget without raising taxes and found a way to get health insurance to all our citizens without a government takeover," writes Fehrnstrom, still Romney's spokesman, in an e-mail.

Whether Romney's rapid journey rightward will matter in the election isn't clear. In the town of Aiken (town motto: "Character counts"), what you hear is a lot of skepticism about Mormonism, still Romney's most problematic sale. And many who say that a person who came late to the anti-abortion camp can't be trusted to stay there.

"If he changed his mind once, he could change it again," says Gene Hawkins, a private investigator, who was visiting a gun store during his lunch break. "If he's indecisive about that, what else might he be indecisive about?"

Among those who came to Romney's event, few seemed bothered by the idea that he'd run for his only other job in public office as a very different candidate. In a state so dominated by Democrats, how else was he supposed to win? And perhaps his willingness to rethink his stands, these people said, is evidence of a comforting kind of honesty.

"It takes a real man to admit he's wrong, but he's changed his mind and he tells you why," says Skipper Perry, Aiken's local representative to the state legislature. "I don't look at it as flip-flopping so much as soul-searching."

What liberal activists from the home state remember, however, is a governor who presented a thoroughly convincing persona in 2002 and effectively abandoned it two years later. Which is the real Romney, they ask?

Some think he was feigning his moderation then and is revealing his true self now. But it's a safe bet that Romney would have passed a lie detector test in both incarnations. And that speaks to his consummate skills as a salesman, the best of whom believe so deeply in their product that they internalize its merits -- which is why they never sound like they're selling.

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