SAN DIEGO — When Mitt Romney breezed into a book-signing here recently, some people from Massachusetts may not have recognized him.
True, his hair was slicked back in signature style, but his rumpled cotton shirt looked nothing like the pressed suits he favored while governor of the Bay State. Tufts of gray hair poked above the open neck, and a bronze California glow replaced the pasty complexion normally found amid a New England winter.
Since losing his presidential bid in 2008, Romney has gone West Coast. It's part of a personal and political repositioning as he looks to avoid campaign trouble spots and reorder his life ahead of a second White House campaign in 2012.
Romney not only sold his family home in Belmont, Mass., but he bought a house — for $12 million — in the northern San Diego community of La Jolla. He traded a snowy commute for early morning beach strolls amid the dog walkers. And he's become a familiar face at California political events, addressing the state Republican convention last month and campaigning on behalf of his former Bain Capital protege, Meg Whitman, a candidate for governor.
That prompted speculation Romney may want to run for one of California's Senate seats or governor himself, but he laughs off the prospect.
"I wanted to be where I could hear the waves," Romney said, despite living for most of his adult life on the Atlantic coast.
The house purchase was part of a personal downsizing — at least square-footagewise — that occurred after Romney wrapped up his presidential campaign and watched the eventual GOP nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, take a drubbing over his vast real estate holdings.
Romney also had just spent $47 million of his own money on his campaign, and the stock market, where he invested the bulk of the remaining fortune he built as a venture capitalist, was in a nosedive.
Romney and his wife, Ann, sold the 6,500-square-foot Massachusetts colonial where they raised their five sons, fetching $3.5 million. They also unloaded a 9,500-square-foot family retreat at the Deer Valley ski resort in Utah for close to its $5.25 million asking price.
The couple held onto their waterfront home at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, while adding a 3,000-square-foot oceanfront house carved from the California estate once owned by actor Cliff Robertson.
They still do not own a property in Massachusetts, forcing them to claim temporary residence at a basement apartment in the Belmont home owned by their eldest son, Tagg. It's the address Romney used to vote in Republican Scott Brown's recent victorious Senate special election race, all legal with town officials.
Spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said the Romneys are buying their own home in Belmont, but a March closing was pushed back to June because of "contractor delays." That has put forced the Romneys to watch the number of days they spend in California, ensuring they do not raise questions about their primary residency for tax, voting or other legal purposes.
Romney still describes Massachusetts as "my state" or "our home." And his political action committee is headquartered in a Lexington, Mass., office park.
The La Jolla home, with a long lawn sloping to a seawall, beach and the crashing Pacific waves, gave Romney the ocean sounds he craved and his wife, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, the warmer weather and horse-riding access she yearned. Ann Romney believes riding has a therapeutic effect. She had successful surgery and radiation treatments last year for early stage breast cancer.
The purchase also put the couple closer to sons Matt and Craig.
"With six grandkids, two sons, two daughters-in-law, I wanted to be in this area," Romney said.
Romney wrote much of his new book, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness," at the home. La Jolla is also amid a southern California cluster of fellow Mormons. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owned the La Jolla store where Romney recently signed copies his book, and it's located just across Interstate 5 from a towering Mormon temple. Many of the nearly 1,000 who lined up were Mormons, based on interviews.
"To me he represents the spirit of being industrious, productive, positive, earning your way, and whether or not Gov. Romney seeks candidacy the next election, he's inspiring the spirit of service in America," said one of those who waited, Bradley Hill, 60, of La Mesa.
While the streets of La Jolla are filled with emblems of capitalism, from exotic car dealerships to pricey retailers and high-end restaurants, Romney has decidedly lowbrow tastes.
He said one of his favorite meals is the turkey burger at the Burger Lounge. Another favorite place is the Marketplace Grille, where he orders the chicken bowl — chicken served with tabbouleh, a choice of white or herbed rice, and lavash bread. It is served on paper plates with plastic utensils.
"He comes in with his grandchildren," said Mehran Izadi, the restaurant's co-owner. "He's very down to earth. You don't expect that from a politician."