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Romney, ahead of 2016 run, now calls Utah home, talks openly about Mormon influence

Mitt Romney attends a dinner aboard the USS Midway in San Diego this month during the Republican National Committee's annual winter meeting. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

After losing two straight presidential races, Mitt Romney packed up his home in Massachusetts and journeyed west to Utah, building a mansion here in the foothills of the Wasatch Range that has served as his sanctuary from defeat.

Here in the Salt Lake Valley, first settled by his Mormon ancestors, residents look past Romney’s electoral shortcomings and revere him for rescuing the 2002 Winter Olympics. Romney won his highest 2012 vote margin in Utah — 73 percent to President Obama’s 25 percent. This is also where Romney has been pondering a potential third campaign, calling out to friends and past supporters and praying with his wife, Ann.

“He feels very at home here,” said John Miller, a close friend in Utah who has been talking with Romney throughout his recent deliberations. “This is a very prayerful thing. . . . In the end, it’s really a decision between he and Ann and their belief system, their God. That’s the authentic Mitt.”

If he runs again in 2016, Romney is determined to rebrand himself as authentic, warts and all, and central to that mission is making public what for so long he kept private. He rarely discussed his religious beliefs and practices in his failed 2008 and 2012 races, often confronting suspicion and bigotry with silence as his political consultants urged him to play down his Mormonism.

Now, Romney speaks openly about his service as a lay pastor in the Mormon Church, recites Scripture to audiences, muses about salvation and the prophet, urges students to marry young and " have a quiver full of kids ," and even cracks jokes about Joseph Smith's polygamy.

Could the third time be a charm for Mitt Romney? The former Republican presidential candidate is making moves to explore another possible White House bid, according to sources. The Post's Karen Tumulty explains what's happening behind the scenes, and what it could mean for the 2016 GOP field. (Video: Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

“He has been reluctant to speak too openly on the campaign trail about his faith, out of a concern that people would believe his motivation for running was based on an attempt to convert others to his faith,” said Tagg Romney, the eldest of Mitt and Ann’s five adult sons.

“If he were to run again,” he added, “I believe he would be much more willing to open up and share who he is — not by asking others to learn the doctrines of his faith but by speaking of the values of love and service that it has taught him.”

Romney did just that in November, when he addressed the student body at Brigham Young University, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He talked about how his spirituality had shaped his life.

“There may be times in your life when you may feel that it is a bit of a burden being a member of the church,” Romney said. “Some folks will think you’re not Christian, some may be insulted that you don’t drink, and others will think you’re trying to be better than them by not swearing. But I can affirm this: Your fellow members of the church will be a blessing to you that far more than compensates.”

Heading west

In Holladay, an upscale suburb of Salt Lake City, the Romneys have built a manse complete with a "secret door" hideaway room and an outdoor spa off the master bath. They consider it their primary residence, near their son Josh and his wife and children.

Together with another family, the Romneys also bought an 8,700-square-foot ski chalet in nearby Park City. They still own a lakefront estate in Wolfeboro, N.H., and a beach home in the La Jolla area of San Diego, which made news in 2012 because of planned renovations that include a car elevator. Last year, the Romneys sold their Boston-area condo; they stay at Tagg's Belmont, Mass., home when they visit.

Although Romney served as governor of Massachusetts and his past campaigns were based in Boston, he recently registered to vote in Utah. Members of his political circle said they are considering making Salt Lake City, the cradle of Mormonism, his 2016 campaign headquarters. Wealthy Mormons across the Mountain West played a central role in financing his 2012 campaign, and a 2016 bid would lean heavily on the same network.

“He was Utah’s favorite adopted son, and now he’s a Utahn,” said Thomas Wright, a former state GOP chairman. “People here know Mitt, they trust Mitt, they respect Mitt, and they still want to call him President Romney.”

Other locations under preliminary discussion include Boston and Detroit, where the Romney family has roots and a strong political and financial network.

Romney has signaled that poverty would be a central theme of his next campaign. In 2012, Obama's campaign pilloried Romney by portraying him as an out-of-touch plutocrat. In national exit polling , voters who said choosing a candidate who "cares about people like me" was most important went with Obama over Romney, 81 percent to 18 percent.

But Romney’s friends and family believe he could have overcome such character concerns by talking more about his church service.

“He just didn’t talk enough about how he, as a man, was able to do so much to help those in need,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who also is a Mormon. Being a volunteer bishop, as Romney was, is “a high calling in the Mormon Church. You spend most of your time helping people with their problems — everything from financial problems to work problems to marital problems to sexual problems.”

In recent remarks to the Republican National Committee, Romney cited his work tending to the poor, sick or otherwise needy people in his church as evidence that he could authentically carry a poverty message and connect with working- and middle-class Americans.

“In spite of the comments about the ‘47 percent,’ he now talks about lifting the poor,” said friend Fraser Bullock, referring to Romney’s 2012 remarks about people dependent on government. “That’s something he’s done his whole life, but he’s done it quietly, ministering his faith and helping people who are struggling with this issue or that issue. That was all hidden last time.”

In the last campaign, Ann and Tagg Romney — as well as Bob White, Romney’s close friend and a fellow Bain Capital co-founder — advocated internally for showcasing this part of Romney’s biography. Testimony from members of Romney’s congregation at the Republican National Convention briefly highlighted such themes, but Romney’s campaign advisers felt any more attention would distract from his core economic message.

“Last time, consultants argued it was a referendum campaign and that that was what the campaign’s central message should be,” Tagg Romney said.

Many Romney allies said that was a fatal mistake.

“Mitt and his campaign team chose a strategy of the economy, which I think was a good one, but we’re all realizing that people want to see more than that,” Bullock said. “They want to see the human being behind all the positions and platforms.”

True Mitt

While pondering a 2016 campaign, Romney has told friends he would be true to who he is, and that includes a heavy focus on religion. As one former senior campaign official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, put it, “Mitt is not afraid of being a loser losing.”

Mark DeMoss, an evangelical Christian who has helped Romney navigate faith politics for the past decade, said that Mormonism is “a tremendously important part of his narrative” and that “he ought to share his life’s narrative the way he wants to and not according to some political calculus of campaign consultants.”

The Romney team sees "Mitt," the 2014 Netflix documentary, as a model for the kind of image they hope to project. The film reveals Romney's flashes of raw emotion, both joy and anguish — kneeling in prayer, comforting his crying wife in his lap and scooping up his grandkids in monster hugs.

“I always felt that there was this secret that I had,” said Greg Whiteley, the film’s director. “I’d tell my friends: ‘Wait till you see this footage. He really is a different guy.’ So if being more candid about his religion is helping to bridge that gap, I think that’s a great thing.”

People close to Romney said he is motivated to run again partly by an obligation to his country and his church, though they discounted the notion that he feels a divine calling.

“I don’t think he sits there and says, ‘God wants me to part the Red Sea and, darn it, it hasn’t happened twice, but it’ll happen the third time,’ ” the former campaign official said. “Although Mitt would make a good Moses. Think about it.”

Robert Costa and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.