WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney asked it hundreds of times: “Are you honest in your dealings with your fellow men?” A Mormon leader during the 1980s and early ’90s, he posed the question to congregants wanting to enter one of the church’s sacred temples. Romney was a rising businessman in Boston but poured himself into his faith and community.
He also liked to have fun. During a church meeting one Saturday, Philip Barlow, a student at Harvard Divinity School, watched in amazement as Romney sang Billie Jean and performed “a very credible, smooth moonwalk.”
So impressed with Romney’s leadership and personality, Barlow wrote his mother to say he could one day be president.
As Romney stands at the edge of fulfilling a prophecy, the question he asked of others looms over his prospects for success.
He is a paradox, a devout and generous family man but also a calculating politician who has shifted positions with blinding ease. The private Romney is said to be warm and giving, while the campaign Romney is shellacked, stiff and detached.
The question for voters: Who is the authentic Willard Mitt Romney?
Out of apparent fear over perceptions of his religion and wealth, Romney, 65, has buried some of his most positive attributes, offering a one-dimensional character whose attempts at humanizing himself seem limited to tweets of eating at Subway or doing the laundry, or telling workers in Tampa that, like them, he is unemployed.
“I don’t recognize the political guy out there,” said Tony Kimball, who served as an executive secretary while Romney led the Mormon congregation. “I think the political persona is very unfamiliar to him, something possibly that he’s uncomfortable with, which is why some people think he’s stiff and insincere. He approaches it kind of like a role he has to play.”
The Romney puzzle is not easily explained. The expedient answer — that he’ll do and say whatever it takes to win — is overly simple, friends say. Romney has been shaped by his upbringing, the experience of his three-time Michigan governor father, his religion and a business career built on data crunching, analysis and pragmatism.
“There’s a kind of elegance or formality even when he’s telling a goofy joke. It’s just who he is,” said Barlow. “If people want him to get more mud on his boots like his father had so he can appear more authentic, it would be asking him to be less authentic.”
This week, Romney has the opportunity to show a more personal side at the Republican National Convention. It could be critical.
This election is about the economy and the role of government, but voters also make decisions on trust and likability. Romney has one of the lowest popularity ratings of a presidential nominee in decades. Despite everything going wrong for President Barack Obama, polls show the public thinks he is more empathetic.
The campaign says Romney will use the convention to highlight his family. Romney has been married to his wife, Ann, for 43 years, and she has been a force on the campaign, charming and relaxed.
She has often tried to convey a warmer side, describing Romney as a lovable prankster. If he seems too robotic, she joked with a radio interviewer in April, “We better unzip him and let the real Mitt Romney out because he is not!” The couple has raised five successful, well-mannered sons who collectively have 18 children.