Romney, running as problem fixer, might find presidency a different challenge

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 — including a father who ran for president — and his church. Thanks to his analytical skills and a gilded support network that made his success a virtual birthright, he has 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, back when he was 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’ healthcare 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.

At the 2008 Detroit auto show, Romney chatted easily with Ford officials about octane and the paint job on a new red Ford pickup. His wife, Ann, peered into the back seat, and there were jokes about how it was so roomy one could pitch a tent there.

The genial Romney was evident often during the first years of his governorship. In 2004, as he introduced a new kind of transit fare card, Romney joined the Kingston Trio in singing Charlie on the MTA, the tale of a man stuck on the Boston rail system because he didn’t have enough money to pay the fare. He said he was fulfilling a childhood ambition.

That at-ease Romney has since disappeared from public view. The dad and neighbor has been replaced by the more calculating politician trying not to make a mistake.

When he tried to get lyrical about cars during a February campaign stop in Detroit, he spoke about how his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs” — and Democrats quickly saw fresh evidence of Romney as an out-of-touch patrician. His out-of-tune singing at a Florida campaign stop in January has been replayed endlessly by comedians mocking him.

More troublesome to opponents is Romney’s harder, businesslike edge, caring more about money than people.

He came under fire after Bain Capital aided another firm in buying an Indiana office supply plant 18 years ago, when Romney was on leave, running for the U.S. Senate. The new owners required employees to reapply for their jobs, usually with lower pay. The workforce was cut about 25 percent, and shortly thereafter the plant closed, when Romney was back at Bain.

Romney said he was not running Bain when the company was bought. But, he told McClatchy, “I have to tell you, if a business isn’t doing well, sometimes you have to perform surgery.”

History suggests that a Romney White House would put the emphasis on doing what works.

“Getting America on the right track does not require a person who knows all the answers. It requires a person who knows how to get all the answers and to get them done and that’s what good leaders do,” he said.

Supporters point to his success running the 2002 Winter Olympics for clues as to how he would run an operation under ceaseless public scrutiny. Kem Gardner, a friend active in Utah affairs, asked him to take over the scandal-plagued Games.

Romney saw a fresh corporate challenge, ordering a “strategic audit,” where officials talked to everyone involved in the Games. At the end, Romney recalled, “We had a pretty good map of what was right and wrong in the business, of what had to be fixed, and which things were urgent and which were long term.”

Perhaps ironically, since Republicans are vehemently opposed to higher taxes, Romney at the time found that budget-cutting alone would not save the Olympics. “So the answer to our budget problem would have to be new revenues — marketing and sales,” he said.

The Olympics gave Romney a national reputation as an effective fixer, and his political timing was ideal. In Massachusetts that year, nervous Republicans were concerned that Gov. Jane Swift was vulnerable. She left the race and Romney ran as a reasonable, open-minded centrist.

Romney characteristically pursued the campaign like a problem to be solved. “The campaign was a good deal like a turnaround,” he would write. He listed rules: Know why you’re running. Get the right people. And carry out a strategic audit — “we analyzed the state and its problems.“

Romney won and would go on to sign the 2004 state ban on assault weapons. He helped push through a law requiring that nearly everyone in the state obtain healthcare coverage, a model for what would become the nation’s 2010 healthcare overhaul. Sen. Edward Kennedy, who trounced Romney in his 1994 Senate bid, was present for the state signing ceremony, where Romney called him a friend.

Romney lost the 2008 nomination to John McCain. This year, he made sure he wouldn’t be outflanked on the right.

If he returned to Romney Classic in the White House, he likely would embrace Washington’s power players in search of a deal.

At the first presidential debate, Romney insisted he would be able to work across the aisle in Washington — unlike President Barack Obama — the same way he said he did in left-leaning Massachusetts. “I like the fact that in my state, we had Republicans and Democrats come together and work together,” he said. Democratic lawmakers in Massachusetts, however, said Romney took an all-business approach and showed little interest in getting to know them, reserving an elevator in the state House of Representatives for the governor by blocking it with a red rope.

New presidents tend to have honeymoon periods where the other party bows to the mandate and gives the new leader some of what he wants. George W. Bush got his huge tax cut with Democratic support in 2001. Bill Clinton got the Family Medical Leave Act approved in 1993 with Republican support.

Obama has had a rougher time; his signature proposals, the economic stimulus and healthcare, passed with virtually no Republican support.

History suggests Romney would at least try to follow the early Bush and Clinton models. Recent history suggests he’ll have a difficult time. But his people skills, and his ability to analyze, at least say he’d have a plan for getting things done.

White House correspondent Anita Kumar contributed to this report.