Mike Ghouse, May 15, 2007
I am exploring the candidates for our next president; the two who have struck the chord with me are Barak Obama and Mitt Romney. I am learning as much as I can about the candidates and am pleased to share the same with ya’ll.
Instinctively, I have been a Republican for over two decades and have voted pretty much Republican with a few exceptions. I did not vote for President Bush this last election and have voted Republican all the way.
My loyalty is to America and its pluralistic democracy, and perhaps my second loyalty is to the party. However, on my part I will strive to keep the integrity of our system and see the checks and balances established by our founders to remain intact. I would rather see the Judiciary, executive, house and senate to be from different parties. It would be a mistake to give monopoly to any single party.
The following columns in Time magazine are worth reading about the candidate;
1. The Religion Test for Romney
2. What Mitt Romney believes?
Obama sounds good, his instincts are good and in a crisis his judgment would be the right one. Now, as I long to stay with the party, am learning about Mitt Romney and his instincts and his responses are drawing me to learn more about him.
In the two interviews below, he has displayed his humanness. The statement, “Romney loves ‘wallowing in the data,’ he says, and is not comfortable making a decision unless he has heard opposing viewpoints.”I will insist on someone disagreeing," Romney adds, "and then I want to insist on data and analysis."
Lack of this instinct in our President has resulted in gigantic budget deficits, he did not care about the future, and he was for the moment and was pursuing his own agenda of destruction. Our President’s hearing disability prevented him to hear another point of view has wrecked the respect of our nation in the community of nations. Lack of the same instinct made him and his fearsome four unilateralists and anti-democratic.
Mitt Romney’s statement above brings some hope, as long as he keeps his distance from the fearsome four we can count on his fiscal responsibility, his inclusiveness, his instincts to debate the issues without frightening the public and earning our respect in the community of Nations.
Mike Ghouse is a Speaker, Thinker, Writer and a Moderator. He is president of the Foundation for Pluralism and is a frequent guest on talk radio, discussing interfaith, political and civic issues. He founded the World Muslim Congress with a simple theme: "good for Muslims and good for the world." His personal Website is http://www.mikeghouse.net/ and his articles can be found on the Websites mentioned above and in his blogs: http://mikeghouseforamerica.blogspot.com/ and http://mikeghouse.sulekha.com/ . He can be reached at MikeGhouse@gmail.com. Mike lives in Carrollton with his family and has been a Dallasite since 1980.
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The Religion Test for Romney
The Religion Test for Romney
John F. Kennedy's election in 1960 was supposed to have laid the "religious question" to rest, yet it arises again with a fury. What does the Constitution mean when it says there should be no religion test for office? It plainly means that a candidate can't be barred from running because he or she happens to be a Quaker or a Buddhist or a Pentecostal. But Mitt Romney's candidacy raises a broader issue: Is the substance of private beliefs off-limits? You can ask if a candidate believes in school vouchers and vote for someone else if you disagree with the answer. But can you ask if he believes that the Garden of Eden was located in Jackson County, Mo., as the Mormon founder taught, and vote against him on the grounds of that answer? Or, for that matter, because of the kind of underwear he wears?
Slate editor Jacob Weisberg threw down the challenge after reviewing some of Joseph Smith's more extravagant assertions. "He was an obvious con man," Weisberg wrote. "Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don't want him running the country." That argument, counters author and radio host Hugh Hewitt, amounts to unashamed bigotry and opens the door to any person of any faith who runs for office being called to account for the mysteries of personal belief. He has published A Mormon in the White House?, a chronicle of Romney's rise as business genius, Olympic savior, political star. But Hewitt has a religious mission as well when he cites a survey in which a majority of Evangelicals said voting for a Mormon was out of the question. If that general objection means they would not consider Romney in 2008, Hewitt warns, then prejudice is legitimized, and "it will prove a disastrous turning point for all people of faith in public life."
The Mormon question has settled in right next to the issue of whether a twice-divorced man has credibility discussing family values or whether changing one's mind on an issue like abortion is a sign of moral growth or cynical retreat. Unlike in 1960, today the argument is less about the role of religion in public life than in private. It is about what our faith says about our judgment and how our traditions shape our instincts--and about what we have the right to ask those who run for the highest office in the land.
Whenever the subject of Romney's "Mormon problem" arises, a whole host of commentators offer the same solution: all Romney has to do is "pull a J.F.K.," they say, meaning he needs to make a game-changing speech of the kind Kennedy delivered in September 1960 to the growling Protestant ministers of greater Houston. Kennedy declared that he viewed the separation of church and state as sacred; his religious beliefs, he said, were his private affair. "But if the time should ever come," he vowed, "... when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office." Romney has echoed Kennedy's sentiments, declaring that he would no more take orders from Salt Lake City than Kennedy would from Rome. But he can hardly suggest to the devout voters of the G.O.P. base that religious views don't matter, don't warrant discussion or don't affect one's conduct in office. These are voters inclined to think the wall of church-state separation is too high; it is certainly not one any candidate can hide behind. So his challenge is to draw the lines about what's relevant and what's not.
Compared with the Roman Catholic Church, which had 42 million U.S. members in 1960, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is newer and less familiar, its rituals more private. Romney supporters are offering Mormonism 101, emphasizing hard work, clean living and shared family values, to address the concerns of the 29% of Americans who say they would not vote for an LDS member for President. But when it comes to religiously conservative voters, the more people learn, the greater Romney's problem may become. And he will have to decide whether he's willing to provide the kind of public theology lesson that no other candidate has been asked to deliver.
Many Evangelicals have been taught that Mormonism is a cult with a heretical understanding of Scripture and doctrine. Mormons reject the unified Trinity and teach that God has a body of flesh and blood. Though Mormons revere Christ as Saviour and certainly call themselves Christians, the church is rooted in a rebuke to traditional Christianity. Joseph Smith presented himself as a prophet whom God had instructed to restore his true church, since "all their creeds were an abomination in his sight." He described how an angel named Moroni provided him with golden tablets that told the story (written in what Smith called "reformed Egyptian" hieroglyphics, never seen before) of an ancient civilization of Israelites sent by God to America. The tablets included lessons Jesus taught during a visit to America after his Resurrection. Smith was able to read and translate the tablets with the help of special transparent stones he used as spectacles. He published them as the Book of Mormon in 1830.
Twelve years later, Smith explained to a Chicago newspaper that "ignorant translators, careless transcribers or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors" in the Bible, which he revised according to God's revelations. Mormons were subject to persecutions, and in 1844, as he was running for President, Smith was murdered by an angry mob. His successor, Brigham Young, led followers to Utah, the church proceeded to grow rapidly, and Mormon leaders were identified by the church as God's prophets on earth.
At all but the top level, the church is sustained by Mormon men volunteering as lay leaders. Romney was bishop of a ward, or congregation, and eventually president of a stake in Boston, meaning he was responsible for 14 wards with a total of some 3,000 members. Women cannot serve in priestly roles, nor could African Americans until a new revelation brought a change of policy in 1978. Should Romney have to account for such church practices? When he married Ann, a Mormon convert, in 1969 in the temple in Salt Lake City, her family could not attend the ceremony since only Mormons are allowed inside. A separate ceremony was held for "gentiles," as non- Mormons are called.
Conservative Christians don't much like the idea that the Bible is corrupted or that its truths could be updated. The conflicts run deep enough that in 2001 the Vatican ruled Mormon baptisms invalid, and even the more liberal Presbyterians and United Methodists require that Mormons looking to convert be rebaptized. Southern Baptists have called Utah "a stronghold of Satan," and there are many bookshelves' worth of anti-Mormon literature in circulation. The church's aggressive missionary work is a particular challenge to other professing churches, which believe that converts to Mormonism are not truly saved.
But old traditions of theological hostility conflict with constitutional traditions of religious tolerance and a modern trend toward political détente. When Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, he was happy to welcome conservative Catholics and Mormons and Jews to increase his organization's throw weight on social issues. The fact that Romney personally emphasizes family, service and sobriety and opposes abortion and gay marriage has led some evangelical leaders to adopt a kind of "Don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to details of his faith. Romney has held quiet meetings around the country, and they have come away, by and large, impressed. "Southern Baptists understand they are voting for a Commander in Chief, not a Theologian in Chief," says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's public-policy arm. "But he's gotta close the deal. Only Romney can make voters comfortable with his Mormonism. Others cannot do it for him."
They're certainly willing to help, however. Pat Robertson invited Romney to give the commencement address at his Regent University, and the group Evangelicals for Mitt argues that religious conservatives are just as capable of separating faith and politics as liberal Democrats were when they elevated the highest-ranking Mormon in politics: Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid.
Romney's strategists are well aware that the deadliest campaigns in Republican primaries are often the ones waged below the radar. But in this age it is impossible to track every scurrilous e-mail or answer every blog assault. "There are caricatures that pick some obscure aspect of your faith that you never even think about and assume that it was the central element of the church," Romney says, noting that Mormon leaders past and present "said all sorts of things, but they're not church doctrine." Both Romney and wife Ann regularly make a punch line of the fact that he's the only leading Republican contender who is still on his first marriage. And for the record, Romney's great-grandfather, who had five wives, was the last polygamist in the family line.
That still leaves the concerns of more secular voters. Weisberg observes that modern political discourse seems to permit the exploration of candidates' every secret except their most basic philosophical beliefs: "The crucial distinction is between someone's background and heritage, which they don't choose, and their views, which they do choose and which are central to the question of whether someone has the capacity to serve in the highest office in the country." He would raise the same concerns, he notes, about a Jew or a Methodist who believed the earth is less than 6,000 years old. Weisberg's characterization of Mormonism as "Scientology plus 125 years" did not stop Romney from naming L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth a favorite novel. "Someone who believes, seriously believes, in a modern hoax is someone we should think hard about," Weisberg argues, "whether they have the skepticism and intellectual seriousness to take on this job."
Hewitt counters that Romney is facing a double standard, born of a barely hidden bias. "It is unreasonable to demand that a Mormon candidate expose and defend his deepest beliefs in rational terms in order to reassure voters that he is of sound mind," he says. He warns Evangelicals hostile to Romney's religion against colluding with those he sees as hostile to all religions. "The secular left that does not like people of faith in the public square is very happy to have a group of Fundamentalists raise this issue and be a battering ram," Hewitt argues. But if purely theological challenge becomes acceptable, he says, your own theology will be next: Which miracles do you believe in; what about this contradiction in Scripture?
Romney's inspiration going forward may come less from Kennedy than from Dwight Eisenhower, whom Romney reveres to such an extent, he told the Atlantic Monthly, that he asked his grandchildren to call him "Ike" and Ann "Mamie." It was Eisenhower who presided over the first National Prayer Breakfast, saw the addition of "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance and IN GOD WE TRUST to dollar bills, and declared that "our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is." There has always been a certain virtue in vagueness when it comes to presidential piety, and Eisenhower, a Presbyterian convert raised by Jehovah's Witnesses, benefited from discussing spirituality in the most general terms. Romney has repeatedly said that "I think the American people want a person of faith to lead the country. I don't think Americans care what brand of faith someone has."
"Romney has a bigger problem and a smaller problem than Kennedy," argues Richard N. Ostling, co-author of Mormon America: The Power and the Promise. "Bigger because the distance between the Mormon faith and conventional Judeo-Christian faith is wider. On the other hand, I think Americans are more tolerant than they once were." There are now two Buddhists and a Muslim in the House of Representatives. Is the U.S. open to electing someone from a new, different or marginal religious group? To Romney's disciples, it's an article of faith that the answer is yes.
What Mitt Romney believes
Mitt Romney's Presidential campaign had asked for some old family photos, which is why, not long ago, the candidate happened to be going through mementos he had dumped on his dining-room table. In one of the boxes, he came across a letter he recognized well: typewritten, single-spaced, six pages long. He has read it so many times that he can recite parts of it by heart. Romney first opened it four decades ago, when he was in France doing Mormon missionary work. The letter was from the father he had idolized growing up, and still does, the man he has described as "the definition of a successful human." This, however, was an epistle about failure — about the one time his father had attempted something big and fallen short.
There was so much to tell the son who had been spared by distance from having to witness the father's humiliation, but the most important thing George Romney wanted Mitt to know was that he had no regrets. "Your mother and I are not personally distressed. As a matter of fact, we are relieved," he wrote on the last page. "We went into this not because we aspired to the office, but simply because we felt that under the circumstances we would not feel right if we did not offer our service. As I have said on many occasions, I aspired, and though I achieved not, I am satisfied."
If you are under 60, you probably don't have much of an idea who George Romney was. But early on in the wrenching election of 1968, the dynamic and visionary Michigan Governor was leading the field for the Republican Presidential nomination. Most accounts at the time and since would blame his stumble on a rash, candid admission to a local television interviewer that his initial support of the Vietnam War was the result of "brainwashing" by the generals and the diplomats. But it has also become clear that there were larger forces at work against him. George Romney was a member of the party's liberal wing; he had withheld his support from Barry Goldwater in 1964 over civil rights. But by 1968 that strain of progressive Republicanism was starting to wither. Richard Nixon's triumph would be called a realignment, a no-looking-back turn to the right for the Republicans.
Now Mitt is the Romney who wants to be President — and once again it comes at a moment that has the potential to redefine the Republican Party. He has surprised the party's top contenders by raising more than $21 million, easily outpacing John McCain's anemic $13 million and Rudy Giuliani's $16 million. He's leading the other Republicans in one New Hampshire poll. And in the recent Republican debate, when the 2008 field was first lined up onstage, he was widely proclaimed the winner because of his Presidential bearing. The shell-shocked G.O.P. is looking away from Washington for a fresh face, a miracle-worker résumé and a big dollop of charisma. Could Mitt Romney be The One?
A FATHER'S LESSON
The morning after he found that letter again, Romney was headed to Iowa for the 16th time in the past two years. "The older I get, the smarter Dad is," Romney said. "I pattern myself like him — his character, his sense of vision, his sense of purpose."
The Dinosaur Hunter
The Citizen's Candidate
But if there's anything the psychodrama of the two Bush presidencies should have taught us, it is that what fathers bequeath their sons is complicated. When you look at the old pictures of George Romney, it is impossible to miss the physical resemblance — the chiseled jaw, the bountiful hair, the athlete's bearing. At every turn, Mitt Romney has steered his life into his father's groove, becoming a leader in the Mormon Church, a business whiz, a Republican Governor who defied his party's orthodoxy and won in a Democratic state. Each engineered the spectacular rescue of a failing enterprise: the elder Romney, a car company; the younger one, the 2002 Winter Olympics. And now, at 60, Mitt is the age his father was when he ran for President, almost to the month. Romney sees it too, as he told George Stephanopoulos on ABC, "My dad, I mean, I am a small shadow of the real deal."
Whether Romney 2.0 is a real deal is precisely what everyone wants to know these days. Beyond the appearance and the résumé lies perhaps an important difference from the earlier Romney. Whereas George stood firm and true against the prevailing political winds, Mitt seems as if he can dress himself as a politician for any season. You can't help wondering whether what he learned from his father's steadfastness was an object lesson in what not to do if he doesn't want to end up as a footnote in someone else's Presidential memoirs.
Running in liberal Massachusetts, Mitt Romney insisted that, despite his personal pro-life beliefs, "abortion should be safe and legal in this country ... I sustain and support that law, and the right of a woman to make that choice." Currently playing on YouTube is an artfully edited video of a debate from his 1994 Senate campaign (an instance in which Romney made a career move his father hadn't, and lost to Ted Kennedy). In it, Romney declares of his pro-choice abortion stand, "You will not see me wavering on that or be a multiple choice." He cites his mother, who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate from Michigan in 1970 as an abortion-rights advocate, and the searing tragedy of his brother-in-law's teenage sister — "a dear, close family relative who was very close to me" — who died of a botched illegal abortion in the 1960s.
Those close to Romney doubt he was ever as committedly pro-choice as those comments might have made him seem. More likely, this school of thought argues, Romney figured abortion restrictions were not apt to come to the Governor's desk in a state as liberal as Massachusetts. Says longtime friend Joel Peterson, founder of a Salt Lake City equity firm: "He knew that they would never come up for a vote, so he took it off the table. Does that sound politically expedient? Maybe."
Now that he is in a Presidential primary battle in which Evangelicals account for a quarter of the electorate, however, Romney says the landmark Supreme Court decision on abortion, Roe v. Wade, has "cheapened the value of human life." And that's not the only place where he seems to have retrofitted his views to the tastes of the voters he is trying to win. Whereas Romney dedicated himself in Massachusetts to "full equality for America's gay and lesbian citizens," he now describes himself as "a champion of traditional marriage." As a candidate for Governor in a state known as Taxachusetts, Romney dismissed the idea of an antitax pledge as a gimmick and refused to sign it; as a G.O.P. presidential contender, he was the first in the 2008 field to put his name on one.
In Massachusetts he bucked the National Rifle Association by supporting the Brady Bill and an assault-weapons ban, boasting, "I don't line up with the N.R.A." Lately what he brags about is that he joined the gun-rights organization as a life member — last August. Romney has been so eager to prove his Second Amendment bona fides that he boasted in New Hampshire, "I've been a hunter pretty much all my life." But then his campaign admitted he had actually hunted only twice, once as a teenager and then last year, on a trip with G.O.P. donors. That was followed by still more clarification: Romney insisted he has hunted small animals for many years, though he does not actually own a firearm. "Leave it to Mitt Romney to shoot himself in the foot with a gun he doesn't own," wrote Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi.
FLEXIBILITY VS. EXPEDIENCY
As you compare what he stood for in Massachusetts with what he says now, it seems fair to ask, Was Mitt Romney telling us the truth about himself then, or is he telling it now? What is flexibility, and what is expediency? Romney insists that everything he has said has come from his heart. On some issues, he argues, the landscape changed, not he. When he spoke out in 1994 in favor of civil rights for gays — a position he says he still holds — gay marriage was not even on the political or judicial radar screen. In other instances, he says, his opponents are finding contradictions where they don't exist. While his views don't in fact line up with the N.R.A.'s on every issue, he says, he has always supported the basic right to bear arms. "You can make the same statement, and if someone's going to write a story, they'll cover one part of the sentence instead of the other, and they'll say, 'Oh, it's different now,'" he tells me, but adds with his typical unflappability, "That's the nature of politics. I don't particularly mind that."
On abortion, Romney says he simply changed his mind. He recalls that it happened in a single revelatory moment, during a Nov. 9, 2004, meeting with an embryonic-stem-cell researcher who said he didn't believe therapeutic cloning presented a moral issue because the embryos were destroyed at 14 days. "It hit me very hard that we had so cheapened the value of human life in a Roe v. Wade environment that it was important to stand for the dignity of human life," Romney says. "We learn with experience. We gain perspective over time, but the principles remain the same. I have a number of principles, and the principles remain the same."
Can Romney convince voters there is indeed a core somewhere in the middle of all those contortions? That challenge could determine whether he's in the race for the long haul or just an early, forgettable flash. Of the many reasons the last Presidential candidate from Massachusetts lost, nothing was so devastating as the 13 words John Kerry would give anything to take back: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." But given that we've had three years since then to reckon with the consequences of inflexibility on Iraq, maybe there isn't the same price to be paid for reinvention.
It remains to be seen, though, how Romney's transformation will wash with conservative voters. "He does not appear to be credible in his deathbed conversionsb — pro-life, anti-homosexual agenda and so on," says Paul Weyrich, a founder of the Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority, the intellectual and religious bulwarks of what was once known as the New Right. "People simply do not believe him."
Others do see a consistency, if not in where he has been then at least in the direction in which Romney is going. With McCain, there is an ideological drift that makes him harder to peg or predict, as he sides with conservatives on issues like abortion and against them on the question of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and on filibustering judicial nominees. "To me, [Romney's evolution] shows that he's at least willing to listen and change. I see it as sincere," says former South Carolina Congressman Tommy Hartnett, a Catholic who has endorsed Romney in that early-primary state.
THE VENTURE CAPITALIST
Romney's training for this race started early. He was 15 when his father ran for Governor in a state in which no Republican had held the job in 14 years. Mitt worked the campaign switchboard and traveled the county-fair circuit in a Ford microvan. George put Mitt to work at the "Romney for Governor" booths, shouting over a microphone and loudspeaker system, "You should vote for my father for Governor. He's a truly great person. You've got to support him. He's going to make things better." Mitt realizes now that his dad had something in mind beyond his own political career: "He was teaching me how to get out there."
Willard Mitt — who was called Billy until he was old enough to protest that he liked his middle name better — was the baby of the family, whose arrival six years after his three siblings' is remembered as a shock and a miracle. When Mitt was 7, George took over a failing car company called American Motors and introduced a radical design concept in the era of soaring tail fins and acres of chrome: something he called the "compact car," a sedan built on a smaller frame to be cheaper.
The Rambler turned out to be a hit, in no small part because George Romney turned it into a crusade as well as a business. He made the cover of TIME in a 1959 story that described him as "a broad-shouldered, Bible-quoting broth of a man who burns brightly with the fire of missionary zeal." TIME noted that George Romney was a particular hit at women's clubs, where he would fix them with "his blue-grey eyes" and say, "Ladies, why do you drive such big cars? You don't need a monster to go to the drugstore for a package of hairpins. Think of the gas bills!" Turning those sales techniques to politics wasn't much of a stretch.
One thing he was willing to stretch, or at least test, was the U.S. Constitution. It is debatable whether George, having been born to U.S. expatriates in Mexico, fit the Article II requirement that a President be a "natural born Citizen." His son was asked at the first Republican debate whether that requirement should be changed to allow, say, Austrian-born California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to run. "Probably not," Mitt answered.
Being Mormon made the family unusual in tony Bloomfield Hills, though Mitt doesn't remember anything that felt like ostracism at his élite prep school, Cranbrook. (Then again, he was the Governor's son.) "My faith was not a burden to me. I didn't smoke and I didn't drink, and that was about it" in distinguishing him from his classmates socially, he says. "I think it's a helpful thing for the development of the character of a young person to be different from their peers. It's a blessing to be different and stand up for that."
The closest he has ever come to a personal religious crisis, he recalls, was when he was in college and considering whether to go off on a mission, as his grandfather, father and brother had done. Mitt was deeply in love with Ann, his high school sweetheart and future wife, and couldn't bear to spend more than two years away from her. He says he also felt guilty about the draft deferment he would get for it, when other young men his age were heading for Vietnam. In the end, it was Ann — a convert to Mormonism from having been a once-a-year churchgoing Episcopalian — who persuaded him to go, saying he would always regret it if he didn't. He didn't convert many Frenchmen but found the experience was something that "concentrates the mind," he says. "My faith has been a part of my foundation throughout my life. My faith has made me a better person than I would have been."
After his return and his graduation from college, Mitt and his father didn't see eye to eye on what he should do next. George argued for law school; Mitt wanted to go to business school. So he pursued both degrees simultaneously at Harvard. Romney would immediately put that business degree to spectacularly successful use. But whereas his father had been an industrialist, staking his fortunes on what he produced, Mitt moved first into consulting and then into venture capitalism — a field in which, says his former partner and current campaign chairman Bob White, "you need to be able to quickly recognize a good opportunity. You need to be able to assess it in relatively quick, short time frames." Venture capitalists take big risks, with the hope of even bigger returns, often by dismantling a business, jettisoning what doesn't work, retooling what does and unloading the whole thing at a big profit. Romney's firm Bain Capital started in 1984 with $37 million in assets under management; by the late 1990s, it had billions. One of Romney's biggest achievements was seeing the potential for the office-supply chain Staples in the 1980s, when few could imagine a time businesses wouldn't just get their paper and pens delivered. In describing his own management style, Romney draws none-too-subtle contrasts with the current occupant of the Oval Office. Romney loves "wallowing in the data," he says, and is not comfortable making a decision unless he has heard opposing viewpoints. "I will insist on someone disagreeing," Romney adds, "and then I want to insist on data and analysis."
But by the late 1990s, he was getting restless with his lucrative business career. His 1994 Senate race against Kennedy had given him a political bug, and though he lost, 58% to 41%, he got close enough in the pre-election polls to give the liberal lion a scare. (The final outcome was Kennedy's closest race since his first election, in 1962.) Then Romney's biggest turnaround opportunity presented itself. In 1999 he was recruited to take over the scandal-ridden Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and dig it out of a nearly $400 million operating deficit by 2002. The zest with which he did it, rallying 23,000 volunteers behind him, made him a celebrity, with an added aura of grace for having pulled it off in the aftermath of 9/11.
The torch had barely been extinguished when Romney decided to take another shot at politics, again with the opportunistic instincts of a venture capitalist. He muscled aside a vulnerable G.O.P. incumbent, acting Governor Jane Swift, after promising not to run against her; then he sideswiped Democrat Shannon O'Brien. After she accused him of trying to "mask a very conservative set of belief systems," Romney called her "unbecoming," leaving the impression that he considered it a none-too-veiled attack on his religion. He won, 50% to 45%, carrying many of the Democratic areas of the state.
Critics say his four years in office produced very little. "There's two ways to look at this guy. One is that the glass is half empty. The other is that the glass is totally empty," says Stephen Crosby, a Republican who served in the Swift administration and is now dean of the graduate school of policy studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Romney's ads and campaign speeches boast of engineering an economic turnaround. But Michael Widmer, president of the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, points out that the state has lagged most others in job growth. And while Romney closed a $3 billion deficit without raising taxes, he did it in part by raising numerous fees, as well as shifting some of the burden by cutting aid to cities and municipalities.
Interestingly, the biggest accomplishment of his tenure — the state's new health-care program — is something he rarely mentions on the trail, perhaps because the program is turning out to be more expensive than advertised and perhaps because "universal health care" is a rallying cry associated more with Hillary Clinton than with any Republican politician. Though the final deal was cut by the Democratic legislature, officials in Massachusetts say it couldn't have happened if Romney had not championed the concept of universal health coverage with voters and businesses. The Governor was also the one who put on the table the idea of requiring individuals to buy health insurance if they were not covered by their employers — a move that gave Democrats the political cover they needed to put other controversial parts of the plan into place.
What rankles many in Massachusetts is that the liberal state has become the butt of many of Romney's jokes. But it did give Romney an opportunity to take the national stage on a pair of social issues that matter a lot to conservatives: stem-cell research and gay marriage. When the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled on Nov. 18, 2003, that the state constitution mandates gay marriage, he undertook to amend the constitution to ban it. He also called for a federal constitutional amendment, getting to the right of McCain on the issue. And he went to war with the Democratic legislature over stem-cell research, though his position on that issue is not entirely consistent with that of pro-life groups. Romney — whose wife suffers from multiple sclerosis — supports the use of embryos harvested but not used for in vitro fertilization. He's not for cloning.
All of which, conveniently enough, prepared him for the place he finds himself in today, claiming the mantle of a true conservative in a Republican primary that has lacked one. Romney says he wants voters to see "somebody who has unusual experience managing tough situations." He even titled his Olympics memoir Turnaround. The question he must answer now, however, is whether that describes what he can accomplish — or what he is willing to do to get elected.