WASHINGTON -- To his supporters, Mitt Romney exudes cool fire.
The rigid jaw, the focused eyes, the straight shoulders and the perfect hair all project the image of a man who seems born with confidence – a fixer.
Romney looks presidential, and in the White House, the Republican nominee promises to be a leader who would calmly analyze the economy, devise remedies, check the numbers on a balance sheet and work from there.
To critics though, the Romney way is too much a caricature, too scripted and sculpted, as though he never owned a dirty T-shirt or even saw one in his house. He would find fixing things as president presents a very different challenge from running a company – he must be nimble enough to change a style or a position, sometimes dramatically, always in the public eye. That could mean alienating conservatives and fueling the criticism in other circles that Romney has no political core.
And yet throughout his life, Romney, 65, has viewed politics as a means to carry out a deeply felt mission to make the world better, a duty instilled in him by his parents and his church. Thanks to his analytical skills and a gilded support network that made his success a virtual birthright, he’s had a steady climb toward the summit he seeks.
Romney’s personality, which Massachusetts residents liked when they first elected him governor in 2002, has its roots in a family of American privilege, where no one rolled their eyes if a child mused about being president. Romney has long tried to emulate the plainspoken, politically moderate father he adored, former auto executive and Michigan Gov. George Romney.
Guided by strong Mormon values, Mitt Romney followed the family maxim that good politics could go hand in hand with good works.
"I met early presidents," he once told McClatchy, recalling the night when, as a teenager, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower came to dinner and recalled World War II campaigns – and problems he had with misconduct by his own troops.
Romney saw that leaders like Eisenhower "were not supermen who could leap tall buildings in a single bound."
They were ordinary people, Romney learned, who developed special skills for dealing with others. "The president has an IQ of that of above-average Americans, but not genius level," Romney said. "They have skills developed from life experience, which prepares them to lead and accomplish."
Over the years, Romney executed time after time: He fixed the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. He fixed Massachusetts’ health care system. He fixed companies as a business executive.
His Mormon faith is a strong influence, and Romney maintains a gentle but omnipresent missionary zeal. In 1996, when he worked at Bain Capital, the Boston private equity firm he co-founded, the 14-year-old daughter of the company’s managing director was reported missing.
Reports at the time said Melissa Gay left her home in Connecticut, went to a party, took ecstasy and vanished. After a few days, Bain shut down the firm while it helped organize a search. After five days, Melissa was found safe.
Her father, Robert Gay, recalled the rescue in Romney ads this year. "Mitt’s done a lot of things that people say are nearly impossible," Gay said. "But for me, the most important thing he’s ever done is to help save my daughter."
Romney’s ease with people has surfaced in several guises. He’s a car guy. Five years ago, his family gave him a ‘62 Rambler for his 60th birthday, honoring his dad’s last year at the helm of American Motors, 1962.