Mitt Romney: flexible pragmatist, or a politically soulless flip-flopper too eager to please?
Consider the 2012 Republican presidential candidate's revised explanation of the Massachusetts near-universal health care measure he signed into law while governor:
"We can accomplish the same thing for everyone in the country, and it can be done without letting government take over health care," he wrote last year in his book "No Apology."
But earlier this year, as he prepared to launch his White House campaign -- and convince skeptical conservatives that he was truly one of them -- the new paperback version read differently.
The line "we can accomplish the same thing for everyone in the country" was gone. The next clause was changed to say, "and it was done without government taking over health care."
A subtle attempt at reinvention? Even though the Massachusetts law is widely considered a model for the 2010 federal health care law, which conservatives loathe?
"If you're looking for black and white answers, you're not going to get them from Mitt Romney," said Craig Robinson, the editor of The Iowa Republican, a GOP newsletter in the nation's first caucus state, which votes Jan. 3.
Romney likes to paint himself and his family as smart, analytical risk-takers, recalling how his great-great-grandfather Miles came to this country from England in 1837 after Mormon missionaries told him "God had been restored to the Earth by a young prophet."
The family, Romney said, has long been loyal to the church, a devotion "based on sanity and not on fanaticism."
Eventually, the Romneys settled in Michigan, where George Romney first headed American Motors, then served as Michigan's governor from 1963 to 1969, building a record as a fiscal conservative and a social moderate who was active in civil rights causes.
Mitt Romney adored his father.
"Work was never just a way to make a buck to my dad. There was a calling and purpose to it. It was about making life better for people," the son recalled.
Mitt Romney met Ann Davies in high school. On their first date, he picked her up in an American Motors Marlin and they saw "The Sound of Music." They've been married since 1969, and have five sons.
Romney attended Stanford University for two quarters, then went to France as a Mormon missionary for two and a half years. He then enrolled at Brigham Young University, graduated in 1971 and got an MBA from Harvard Business School and a doctorate in law from Harvard Law School.
He stayed in Massachusetts and joined Bain & Co., a management consulting company. In the mid-1980s, he co-founded Bain Capital, a spinoff venture-capital firm.
When recalling his time at Bain, Romney likes to cite successful ventures he helped establish, such as the Staples office-supply firm. Some efforts were less successful. Bain helped another firm buy a Marion, Ind., office-supply plant in the mid-1990s, cut the workforce 25 percent and then, a few months later, closed it altogether.
Labor union officials still seethe when discussing Romney.
"His business record is one of picking the meat off the bones to maximize profit for wealthy investors. In his case the meat was the middle class, picking away at jobs, decent wages and benefits plant by plant," said Tim Sullivan, the legislative and communications director for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.
Romney's business reputation helped propel him to political stardom. He ran for the Senate against Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1994, and tried hard to paint himself as a center-right candidate - and even at times to Kennedy's left.
Romney supported abortion rights then: "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country; I have since the time that my mom took that position when she ran in 1970 as a U.S. Senate candidate," Romney said during a 1994 debate with Kennedy.
In October 1994 he appealed to gay rights activists. He told the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group, that "if we are to achieve the goals we share, we must make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern. My opponent cannot do this. I can and will." Kennedy had a long history as one of the nation's foremost civil rights champions.
Romney lost to Kennedy, but his 41 percent showing was seen as impressive.
By the late 1990s, a close friend asked Romney to rescue the scandal-plagued Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. "I couldn't help wondering if it (the Olympic task) was the doorway I had been looking for" to political prominence, he wrote.
The games' success helped kick that door open. By 2002, Massachusetts Republicans needed a strong gubernatorial candidate. Despite the state's reputation as a Democratic bastion, its voters historically have warmed to moderate, management-savvy Republicans.
The GOP had controlled the governor's office since 1991, but incumbent Jane Swift was increasingly unpopular. Swift left the race, and Romney, the personable turnaround artist, was the nominee - and won.
Rachel Alexander, the editor of IntellectualConservative.com, a Web-based journal, urges viewing Romney as a convert to the right, not a flip-flopper.
"His record has mainly moved to the right, not flip-flopped back and forth like McCain and other well-known flip-floppers," she said, referring to Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee. "Unless he flip-flops back to the left on major issues like abortion, taxes, spending, foreign policy, etc., I don't think we can say he has no political soul yet."
Romney may have reasoned explanations for his positions, the skeptics say, but something about him just doesn't feel right.
"I go to events and listen to him, and it sounds fine," Iowa's Robinson said. "I get it. But there's nothing that tells me this is what he believes."
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