SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney, battling for home-court advantage in several states, returned to this host city of the 2002 Olympics, a sporting event that he helped to lead and is a cornerstone of his political identity.
Romney received a standing ovation at EnergySolutions Arena when he was introduced as CEO of the games at a “Stars on Ice” event marking the 10th anniversary of the games.
“Because of the strong leadership of the CEO, the fire that he lit within, these games were a tremendous success” said Kristi Yamuguchi in introducing Romney.
Earlier, Romney, who was clad in a blue leather jacket emblazoned with USA 2002, spoke to a cheering crowd of former committee members, recalling how he was skeptical of joining the team at first — it was his wife Ann who convinced him.
“For me the Olympics was one of those things that I saw on TV and I didn’t see why it was important for me to become involved in the games,” he said, adding that he finally came around after conversations with his wife. “One of the things that drew me to the Olympics was that the games were a showcase for the great qualities of the human spirit.”
In his brief remarks, Romney, ticked off all of the different organizing teams that helped bring the games together, noting that they helped defray costs of putting on the games by millions of dollars.
Emotional at times, Romney recalled watching the opening ceremonies and the spirit of unity that prevailed.
“These were the most inspirational games I have ever seen. And I just want to say thanks to all of those that lit the fire within,” he said. “What happened from the games is there is power in unity. We came together as a group of people, not caring about who got credit, but caring about putting together the best games in the history of sport. I will always be proud, proudest of having been a part of the Salt Lake organizing committee of the Winter Games.”
In almost every speech, the former governor of Massachusetts says that he turned the Games around, helping to orchestrate one of the most successful Winter Games after a damaging scandal marred the planning stages.
Saturday’s speech offered Romney an opportunity to underscore an argument that is central to his race for the White House in a state where he is viewed very favorably.
But the speech also was a challenge for Romney, who is struggling to home in on a consistent theme and vision for his candidacy, and now faces increased criticism for taking too much credit for the Games and for the $1.4 billion price tag.
Speaking Saturday in Ohio, Rick Santorum ripped Romney for bailing out the Olympics.
And the Democratic National Committee released a Web video featuring John McCain, a Romney surrogate, blasting the Games as a billion-dollar earmark.
Romney has a wealth of goodwill here — in the 2008 primary he won nearly 90 percent of the vote here.
“He is pretty widely popular here. Even Jon Huntsman, who left office [as Utah governor] with sky-high approval ratings, isn’t as popular as Mitt Romney,” said Quin Monson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University who has studied Romney’s career. “There is the idea that the Games were in trouble, and he came in and rode to the rescue. And that perception is shared by the general public.”
Romney took the helm of the Olympics in 1999, as leaders of the Games faced accusations of bribing members of the International Olympics Committee in charge of selecting a host city.
“He was a great image for the Games when there was an image problem,” said Ken Bullock, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, who served on the executive committee for the Olympics. “But we were planning the Games for 15 years, and it’s overreaching and overstating for Romney to claim turning the Games around as part of his legacy.”
Romney has spent the week not only highlighting his ties to Utah, but to Michigan, as well, where his father served as governor and where he grew up. Faced with an emboldened Santorum, Romney has moved to shore up ties to that state in advance of its primary Feb. 28. In Utah, which is heavily Mormon, Romney has tapped into donor support to fill his campaign war chest and will continue to draw on that support throughout the campaign.
And as he moves to reveal a more personal side, the Utah setting provides another opportunity.
“You can’t talk about his popularity in Utah without talking about religion and his leadership roles in the church. There is an empathy that Romney has that not many people know about, but Mormons have seen it,” Monson said. “The thing that makes him human is his religion and his service.”