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Born optimist Romney keeps tackling new tasks and looking for more

Mitt Romney does not admit to many weaknesses in life. When he does offer one, it is a weakness that can be read in a favorable light: The man who makes complex endeavors appear effortless, from restructuring businesses to running the Olympics, just cannot float.

"I swim and I can swim quite well, but if I stop swimming, I sink," he says in an interview in his Belmont home. "If I go out in a lake and I swim and I stop swimming and hold my breath, I will just slowly go down."

It's an Achilles' heel; it's also a way of saying Romney can't stand treading water. The 55-year-old venture capitalist made his name turning around troubled businesses, and he still can't visit his oldest son Taggart's Belmont home without a tool in hand.

Romney is often regarded as the beneficiary of extraordinarily good luck: He is a multimillionaire with a happy marriage of 33 years, five handsome sons and a national reputation as a leader as a result of the Olympics.

But his father, the late George Romney, taught his children that luck is no mere matter of happenstance; it is the collision of preparation and opportunity. The youngest Romney just seems to keep arriving at that intersection, tackling new tasks and blithely looking around for what's next.

Now, it is the governorship, the Massachusetts governorship, which Romney approaches with seemingly limitless optimism and self-confidence. When he campaigns in Lawrence, a long-distressed city struggling with stunted economic activity, he seems to see a glass half-full. "The resources you have here in Lawrence are just remarkable," he says.

And asked what wrong he would right in Massachusetts, the Commonwealth, he speaks of continuing the promise of education reform — only after coating his remarks with this thick veneer: "Massachusetts is such a great state and has so much opportunity that I think of it in positive, not negative terms. It's taking advantage of opportunities."

That's the way Mitt Romney sees life: It's one big opportunity.

Willard Mitt Romney was born on March 12, 1947, the "caboose" trailing three other siblings.

"He was adored. He was totally adored," says his sister, Jane Romney, now 64, and an actress and writer in Beverly Hills, Calif.

His nearest sibling, G. Scott Romney, was 6 and was so excited at the arrival of the little brother named "Billy," he still remembers "dancing around the table" when he was born. But by kindergarten, Romney had rejected his first name — Willard, for his father's friend, J. Willard Marriott, the founder of the hotel chain. The boy decided to go by his middle name, like his brother and his oldest sister, Lynn Keenan.

The Romneys lived in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., an exclusive suburb outside Detroit, but George Romney, chairman of American Motors Corp., prided himself on not spoiling his children. Their upbringing brought a curious pairing of responsibility and privilege, humility and ceremony. The children had chores, though they also had a maid, a cook and a laundress. Romney had to do the gardening and weeding, fix the cars and repair the boat. Though their father was an auto executive, the children didn't get cars until they'd graduated from high school. They attended elite private schools, but Jane Romney remembered she only got one new dress each year.

Romney was a lanky youth — he describes himself as a "human walking stick" — and never a great athlete, but he excelled in individual pursuits. Cross-country was his high school sport, he jokes, because "guts alone could propel a modicum of success." And at the Lake Huron cottage where the Romneys spent the summer, he astonished his relatives and friends with his waterskiing skills and stunts. "He would size something up very quickly and then get it down," says Jane Romney, of her brother's prowess on water skis.

He also seemed fearless. His brother Scott, now a lawyer in Detroit, remembers an adolescent Romney climbing on their parents' roof with him. "I was kneeling, looking over the edge, with white knuckles and there he was standing, hanging 10 toes over the edge," he says.

Four decades before Romney was lauded for repairing a scandal-ridden Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, his father won accolades for turning around AMC and for introducing smaller cars. He coined the phrases "compact car" and "gas-guzzling dinosaur." (Romney says his father would groan to see him now in his campaign's Chevy Suburban, which seats at least six.)

Romney was still a student at the private, boys-only Cranbrook School when his father was elected governor of Michigan in 1962, taking over a state that had been controlled by Democrats for 14 years. He quickly became immersed in his father's political experience.

"He'd ask my opinion in a way that would make me believe I was an important part of his decision-making," Romney says. "Now, most likely, he was just giving me a chance to learn and not hanging on my every word, but he was kind enough to let me become exposed to politics and to that part of his life."

His mother, Lenore, ran for U.S. Senate in 1970, with Mitt working as her driver. She campaigned against crime, drug abuse and welfare dependence, and embraced abortion rights before the Supreme Court had ruled in Roe v. Wade. But she was a decided underdog and lost to incumbent Phil Hart.

George Romney served three terms as governor and was considered an early favorite for the 1968 GOP presidential nomination, until a 1967 interview when he attributed his earlier support for the Vietnam War to having been "brainwashed" by the U.S. military during a trip to Vietnam. Ridiculed for the comment, he dropped out of the race two weeks before the New Hampshire primary. He never ran for office again, though he was appointed U.S. housing and urban development secretary by President Richard M. Nixon and was known for championing integration in public housing.

Mitt Romney never served in Vietnam. He was first protected by his student status and then, by a draft deferment when he served as a missionary. And in 1969, the year before his five-year deferment was set to expire, he drew a stroke of luck: His lottery number was 300, ensuring he would not be drafted.

Although he went to college in the late 1960s, Romney was never stirred by activism. The closest he came was dressing as a hippie for a college prank as a Stanford University freshman. One of Romney's housemates was antiwar protester David Harris, who later married Joan Baez. In the days leading up to the big game with football rival University of California-Berkeley, the buttoned-down Romney borrowed Harris's clothing — faded jeans, moccasins and a work jacket — so he could infiltrate the Berkeley campus and eavesdrop on students outlining plans for pranks against Stanford.

"Mitt was brazen," remembers friend and housemate Paul Richardson. "He just had a honking laugh walking out the door in this guy's kind of radical attire."

But Romney was known for more than his pranks: Richardson describes him as a "quarterback," always leading the pack. Romney pledged the Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity and was a top student, says Richardson, who recalls they both had crushes on actress Julie Andrews.

Things seemed to come easily to him. "You'd see Mitt go into his room and in the space of an hour, he'd crank out a very good, 1,000-word essay," Richardson says. "I'd be working for hours and his product was usually five to six times as good as mine was. He was very disciplined."

His dormmates that year took note of another reason to envy Romney: his girlfriend, Ann Davies.

Ann, now his wife of 33 years, was the stunningly pretty, Episcopalian daughter of the mayor of Bloomfield Hills. They met at a friend's party in 1965 in their hometown — Mitt was 18, Ann 15.

They had come with different dates but left together, and they dated all summer, continuing to see each other during the year he was at Stanford. In 1966, after his freshman year, they were placed even farther apart when Romney took the traditional step for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — embarking on a mission, for 2 1/2 years in France.

Though the location was a good one — the area around Paris is "not bad duty," Romney says — he was often staying in rundown hotels with no working toilets. The work wasn't much better than the accommodations. In a country that was overwhelmingly Catholic, at a time when people were suspicious of Americans for their involvement in Vietnam, Romney went door to door introducing an exotic religion in his rusty new language. He managed to convert 10 to 20 people, but more often than not, the door was slammed before he could make his pitch.

Nevertheless, the mission was a watershed experience, Romney told the Globe in a 1994 interview. "You really have a sense of 'I am doing something greater than me,' " he said then. "Whether they accept it or not, I am giving my energy, blood, sweat and tears."

While his son was in France, George Romney swiftly took Ann under his wing. "He would pick me up and take me to different events and to church every Sunday with his wife," Ann says.

He helped Ann to convert to the LDS Church before his son returned from France, and when George Romney took a presidential pre-campaign swing out West in 1967, he took Ann to Brigham Young University in Provo. She immediately took an admissions test and applied.

The Romneys also included Ann in an intense family episode — awaiting news of whether Mitt had survived a devastating car crash in June 1968 in France, in which the wife of his mission president was killed.

Romney was driving a Citroen with five other missionaries on a winding lane when their car was struck head-on by a drunk driver. The policeman who came upon the scene initially thought Romney was dead.

But even as conflicting reports trickled home, Ann says she refused to believe he could be dead. "We had so many plans for life and for our future," she says.

They married in March 21, 1969, just four months after he returned — despite both families' protests that they were too young. She was 19; he had just turned 22. Romney transferred to BYU for his sophomore year, and their first son, Taggart, was born on their first anniversary, while they were still undergraduates.

Romney graduated with a degree in English and a 3.97 grade-point average. Then, the Romneys headed to Boston where they had a second baby, Matthew. (They later had three more sons: Joshua, Ben and Craig.)

In Boston, Romney tackled something only a fraction of students seek: Simultaneous Harvard degrees in business and law. In 1975, he graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School and in the top 5 percent of his Harvard Business School class.

"Both of us were very achievement-oriented," says Ann, who completed her own degree that year by taking several classes in Boston — a condition her parents had imposed when they relented on the couple's wedding plans. "We had places to go and things to do. Mitt doesn't walk anywhere."

And that's true: Romney's pace is a racewalk, sometimes an outright sprint. He strides up Lawrence's Essex Street, pumping hands with passersby, ducking into a commercial photographer's studio and posing with running mate Kerry Healey in front of a "Class of 2002" banner.

He pops into a jewelry store and a pizza parlor, where managers give Romney the same grim analysis: Business has fallen since Sept. 11. Throughout the day in the "Immigrant City," where area unemployment is 7.2 percent, compared with the state's 4.7 percent, Romney promotes himself as a business-minded leader who can relieve their economic woes.

"My life has been spent in helping to start little businesses and grow 'em," he tells a crowd of Latino business owners.

This is a semantical stretch of sorts: Those "little businesses" Romney helped build are now industry giants, Domino's Pizza and Staples Inc., thanks to infusions of millions of dollars from his venture capital firm. Romney made his name first at the Boston Consulting Group for three years after graduate school, then at the international consulting firm Bain & Co. He was a vice president when founder William W. Bain Jr. asked him in 1984 to head a spin-off venture capital firm, Bain Capital. In an ultracompetitive industry, Romney was heralded as the man with the Midas touch.

"He's one of the smartest business executives in town," says David D'Alessandro, chairman and CEO of John Hancock Financial Services, who calls Romney one of the few Boston business leaders he'd still work for. "That's for sure. He's smarter than I am."

By 1990, the original Bain & Co. itself was in dire straits. The firm had borrowed $150 million, in part to pay eight original founders — not including Romney — for shares that the company would sell to junior partners through an employee stock ownership plan. But the estimate of the company's worth proved overvalued, and when the economy stalled in the early 1990s, Bain & Co. was unable to meet its debts.

The founder asked Romney to return from Bain Capital to oversee a massive restructuring that eventually involved negotiating with banks, landlords and even the company's founding partners, to get large portions of the debts forgiven. Recognizing that the stability of the company rested on gaining the confidence of its partners, he persuaded all but one of the top partners in the Boston office to commit to staying aboard a potentially sinking ship.

"To a large extent, Mitt's commitment and charisma in the best sense of the word was an important part of why 12 people who had an awful lot of options to do something else decided to stick together," says Orit Gadiesh, a partner at the time and now chairwoman of Bain & Co.

Colleagues agree on Romney's management style: He is an avid debater who forces colleagues to defend a decision to

be certain it's the right one. He builds strong teams, and he doesn't force people to develop skills that are not innate; he puts them on tasks for which they're most suited. He immerses himself in details and can master a topic quickly.

But some also say he can be impatient with people less capable than himself. "That's an intellectual issue," D'Alessandro says. "More politicians should have the problem of being impatient because they're smart."

Others say that he has so seldom faced criticism that he does not wear it well.

"I think Mitt's accustomed to getting his way," says Ken Bullock, the executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns and one of just a few members of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee to criticize Romney. "If he didn't, he got upset."

Romney's business background became a liability in his unsuccessful 1994 challenge to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., when he was panned as a cold-hearted capitalist, whose venture firm routinely put profits over people, especially lower-paid workers. Romney failed to quickly grasp the impact of the accusations, or address them, a dynamic he later said led to his defeat.

The issue erupted over Ampad Corp., a paper company Bain Capital controlled.

In July 1994, Ampad bought an Indiana paper plant, fired the existing workers and gave most employees their jobs back at reduced wages and benefits. Even though Romney was on leave from Bain for the campaign, the workers came to Massachusetts and dogged his campaign. Romney initially tried to justify the layoffs, defending them as necessary in corporate restructuring. Prodded by the workers to meet with them in Boston, Romney eventually did so, but even then, he further distanced himself, showing a diagram of Bain Capital's corporate structure, claiming he was not to blame.

In this gubernatorial race, Romney has tried to shed the old CEO suit, playing the role of an average Joe. Hoping to pre-empt charges that he is too rich and too removed to understand the plight of ordinary workers, Romney has spent days on a road construction crew and a farm, in a day-care center and in a homeless shelter. One evening he grilled sausages outside Fenway Park before a Red Sox game. Media coverage of the events has provoked Romney's Democratic rivals and labor foes to sputter that the only skill Romney is learning on the job is acting.

"Everybody I know thinks it's a joke," says AFL-CIO president Robert J. Haynes.

Romney's campaign got off to a rocky start when evidence surfaced that he had filed income tax returns as a resident of Utah and a nonresident of Massachusetts for 1999 and 2000. The Democrats used that in an unsuccessful attempt to disqualify his candidacy. On the tax return question, the state Ballot Law Commission ultimately said it believed Romney when he testified that the returns were prepared by his accountants, that he simply signed them as instructed, and that he had not intended them to constitute a change in his legal residence. But the candidate's credibility was called into question when he initially said he had filed as a Massachusetts resident, only to admit later that those were amended returns he'd filed after he had decided to run for governor.

Romney has also been criticized for portraying himself as a reformer on corporate issues when he has served as a director of companies that engaged in the same kinds of practices that have been under scrutiny for questionable relationships with accounting firms.

Though Romney is the Republican standard-bearer, he says his ideology defies party labels, and that the traditional approaches of big government and big business as the overarching Democratic and Republican philosophies are limiting.

He has called for changing public teachers' tenure to eliminate protections, and more rapid English immersion for bilingual education. He says he would ease the housing crisis statewide, in part by assessing fees on developers of open land to raise money for downtown housing redevelopment. He reached into liberal territory by proposing to link the minimum wage to inflation. Then, he reached into conservative turf by proposing to impose fees, on a sliding scale, to people who receive health care through Medicaid.

That proposal naturally outraged health care advocates, who said it showed Romney doesn't understand how poor Medicaid recipients are.

"Let him try living below the poverty line for a while," says Joshua Greenberg, deputy director of Health Care For All.

And despite his determination to prove he can connect, Romney does little spontaneous mixing with people on the trail. The "City Days" on his campaign — such as his trip to Lawrence — feature a tightly scripted agenda: brief rounds of handshaking, meetings with town leaders and business officials, rallies with supporters.

He doesn't even seem to mix much with Healey, a relative unknown whom he selected to be his lieutenant governor, although they often campaign together. Romney was determined to pick a woman with a policy background to balance his ticket. Still, out on the trail, she gets decidedly second billing. It is a striking contrast to the Republican team of Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift, who campaigned promising to be "co-governors." In the meeting with Lawrence business leaders, he mentions their ticket, but speaks for several minutes before saying, "Kerry, come on up here. Anything you want to add?"

When the two stop by the Lawrence police station to meet with officers, Romney dominates the conversation, only belatedly offering the floor to Healey, a specialist in criminology.

Everything Romney does is filtered through his faith. Mormons value family above all — as does Romney, who still tries to have his five sons, three daughters-in-law, and four grandchildren convene for weekly dinners. His wife, Ann, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, and Romney says the illness has been a challenge for the family.

The church — along with prohibitions on alcohol and profanity — also encourages community involvement, respect for authority and hard work.

In 1994, Kennedy's campaign tried to link Romney to the conservative beliefs of the Mormon Church. Back then, Romney pointed out that it was the senator's brother, President John F. Kennedy, who successfully argued that religion should be irrelevant in politics. Now, Romney distances himself from in-depth discussions about his faith — repeatedly broadening the debate to the "Judeo-Christian foundation of our culture." And he says that on abortion and other issues, people are free to make their own decisions, right or wrong.

"The right choice would be for people not to use racial epithets or promote the Nazi party, but I would certainly promote the right of free speech in appropriate, permitted settings to espouse positions and views I consider wrong," he says. "That's part of our American system and, likewise, my political philosophy. While I may feel that the best thing a woman might do in most circumstances — most usual circumstances — would be to bring a child to full term, I will preserve her right to make that choice herself rather than have me or any elected official make that for her."

Romney was a bishop — the equivalent of a pastor — in the early 1980s and served as president of the Boston stake, or collection of local churches, between 1986 and 1994. He has long exhibited the charity advocated by his father, who was founding chairman of the National Volunteer Center. He was a longtime board member of City Year, the Boston youth service corps, but he also has extended himself in less public ways.

In 1996, he helped Bain Capital partner Robert Gay find his 14-year-old daughter, who had disappeared after sneaking away to attend a rave in New York City. Gay, who had called Romney after several days away from the office, was flabbergasted when Romney hatched a plan to find her.

"It was the most amazing thing, and I'll never forget this to the day I die," Gay says. "What he did was literally close down an entire business. He basically galvanized an entire industry that just doesn't do this, and got them all on the streets for 48 hours."

With the Bain partners he brought from Boston and investment bankers they knew in New York, Romney set up elaborate search parties, mapping out territories of New York City and turning to a public relations firm for help. Within days, they'd been featured on TV news, and the teenager who had taken her home to Montauk, N.Y. — where she was shivering through detox after a massive dose of ecstasy — called hoping for a reward. Doctors told Gay she might not have lived another day.

"I'm not sure we would have gotten her back without him," Gay says of Romney.

Now, Romney is best known for leading the 2002 Winter Olympics, restoring credibility to the Games and morale to the city that is the center of his religious life.

He erased an Olympic budget deficit of $379 million, reassured advertisers who had considered pulling out and restored confidence in the Games, which had been scandalized by bribery allegations. Media strategists made Romney the symbolic figurehead for the Olympic recovery: He was repeatedly cast as a white knight.

His telegenic appeal and the success of the Games made Romney a Republican to watch. Suddenly, he was right back at opportunity's doorstep, as Massachusetts Republicans were clamoring for him to run for governor.

"He has lived a charmed life. What he does turns out well," says Jane Romney, who fears that could be a liability in her brother's campaign.

Though he is often seen as perfect to a fault, Romney seems intent on protecting that white knight image. He doesn't like to dwell on flaws or foibles. Asked whether there were cracks in his faade, he has only a few things to offer: The inability to float and snacking before bedtime.

"I've gone to bed pretty much every night for the past 20 years with what I call a Jethro bowl of cold cereal," he says, referring to the oversized dishes used by the "Beverly Hillbillies" character. "And when Ann caught me putting a little extra sugar on the Frosted Flakes, she said, 'Whoa! This sugar thing is getting way out of control!' "

He takes pains to maintain his reputation — even at times revising versions of events to accommodate his self-image. In the state residency controversy, Romney now characterizes it as an attempt to resolve an accidental misimpression he had caused by saying he had filed in both states.

"When it became apparent to me that that could be misunderstood, I entirely voluntarily — with no one asking me to do so — immediately called a press conference and brought people in and said, 'You should know my original filing was as a resident of one and a non-resident of the other (state).' So if anyone misunderstood my filing, it was only for a matter of a few hours."

Earlier this year, the Utah news media reported that he had sworn at an Olympic volunteer who was causing a traffic jam. But Romney brought two employees to persuade a police captain of his version of events: He had said nothing stronger than, as he put it, "H-E-double-hockey sticks."

Barbara Kresser, the assessor for Summit County, says there are more shades of gray to Romney than are often perceived.

Kresser stood up for Romney publicly in June, when he received a real estate tax break reserved for primary residents of Utah that he wasn't entitled to. Kresser says it was her office's clerical error that led to the tax discount, which he plans to repay.

But she said that during the Olympics, she saw another side of Romney, when they clashed over whether the ski slopes in her county should be tax-exempt.

Kresser had argued at a commissioners' meeting that the land did not qualify because it did not meet the definition of a charitable organization.

Then, a few minutes later, she took the seat behind Romney and whispered a reminder that Summit County schoolchildren needed more free tickets to the Olympics.

"Well, was that the wrong time to be talking about a freebie, when he didn't want to pay taxes," Kresser says.

She says Romney angrily told her Park City wouldn't get the Olympic benefits if the Games had to pay taxes.

"I suspect he's as human as the rest of us," says Kresser. "Everybody thinks he walks on water. He is a really good man. But he's just human."