COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Mitt Romney cruises down two-lane blacktops, past combines churning up clouds of dust harvesting corn, on his way to one more gathering, one more step on a long journey.
Four years ago, he thought these farm fields would lead to the White House. Iowa, instead, turned out to be the beginning of the end. Weeks after an embarrassing loss here, his campaign folded before the snow had even melted. Romney's now back, more casual but still cautious, making his sales pitch: In these hard times, America needs a leader who understands balance sheets and budgets.
"I love business," the candidate says with a grin, addressing a storefront gathering of the local chamber of commerce. "I want America NOT to be the most regulated, taxed and burdened place in the world but the most attractive...."
This is the image that Romney wants to project: The take-charge CEO, at ease discussing trade pacts, China's currency and ethanol subsidies. The turnaround artist who ran a state government, revived businesses that had lost their way and rescued an Olympics. The guy who, simply, understands money and knows how to create jobs.
But nearly two decades after his political debut, the Mitt Romney story is not that simple. As a man who has straddled the worlds of business and government, Romney has a long, sometimes puzzling record of changing positions that make it hard to pin down who he really is.
There's the self-described conservative who, as governor of liberal-leaning Massachusetts, pushed through a mandatory health insurance plan and thanked Ted Kennedy for his help.
There's the politician who has changed his views on abortion, guns and tax pledges.
There's the candidate who boasts of being a political outsider but has poured tens of millions of dollars of his vast personal wealth into four campaigns in 17 years — planning for or running for president virtually nonstop since 2007.
It's a resume opponents — on both sides of the aisle — have pounced on. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman calls his rival a "perfectly lubricated weather vane." David Plouffe, the president's campaign adviser, says if Romney "thought ... it was good to say the sky was green and the grass was blue, to win an election, he'd say it."
At a recent Michigan debate, Romney defended himself.
The moment came when one of the moderators noted that Romney — son of an auto CEO and a one-time presidential candidate — had criticized Washington for not helping the ailing auto industry four years ago. Then he opposed a government bailout, saying Detroit should go bankrupt. But when the automakers became profitable (after receiving federal aid and filing for bankruptcy), he said the president had embraced his plan.
How, the questioner wondered, was that consistent?
Romney answered by pivoting from autos to his personal history: He cited his 42-year marriage, 25-year tenure at one company and lifelong membership in the Mormon church.
"I think," he said evenly, "people understand that I'm a man of steadiness and constancy."
Mitt Romney, the person, can be almost as difficult to describe as Mitt Romney, the politician.
He's formal and reserved. Relaxed and funny. It just depends on who you ask.
"He's friendly, he's amiable but he's very hard to penetrate," says Charlie Baker, a lawyer, Democratic strategist and chief campaign adviser to Kennedy in his 1994 race against Romney. "You don't get a sense of who the real person is. You know he was a businessman. You know he's a good family guy. You don't get a sense of 'What does he think of the Red Sox?'"
Friends, though, paint a warm picture of a devoted husband and father (he and his wife, Ann, have five sons and 16 grandchildren), an approachable guy who enjoys "American Idol," the Beatles, the movie, "O Brother, Where Are Thou" — and a good laugh.
Cindy Gillespie, who worked with Romney at the 2002 Winter Olympics and was a top gubernatorial aide, recalls that one time a trooper traveling with the governor short-sheeted his hotel bed as a prank. Romney, realizing what had happened, wrote a bogus letter to himself on hotel stationery pretending to be the manager, apologizing and saying the maid had been fired. When the trooper found out, he was stunned. Only then did Romney reveal it was a joke.
Romney has a caring side, too, Gillespie says. Though they hadn't known each other long when they started working together at the Olympics, he called her every day when her father lapsed into a coma after being hospitalized for heart surgery.
"It meant my new boss was somebody who was truly concerned about me," she says. "All the talk you normally hear in the business world that family matters — it really did for him. ... Even in the middle of everything going on (with the Olympics) ... he took the time to listen."
Though friends and critics see Romney differently, both sides agree he learns from his mistakes. The uncertain Senate candidate became a more assured gubernatorial aspirant. The 2012 presidential contender is much smoother than the 2008 version.
At 64, Romney still looks like he could model for a Brooks Brothers catalog, though he's more J. Crew these days, wearing open-collar shirts and khakis. And other than touches of silver at the temples, he hasn't changed much since People magazine included him on its 50 Most Beautiful list in 2002.
With a reported wealth of between $190 million and $250 million, Romney has tried to connect with average voters, tweeting about the joys of flying Southwest Airlines and eating at Subway and Carl's Jr. — comments quickly lampooned in the blogosphere.
And when Romney, who has a $12 million beachfront home in LaJolla, Calif., criticized the president and said the country needs a tax policy to help the middle class — "the great 80 to 90 percent of us in this country" — comic-satirist Jon Stewart struck. He quipped that Romney "wouldn't be middle class at an OPEC meeting."
As a candidate, Romney follows a script: He casts himself as a problem-solver, lacing speeches with statistics and business terms. He quotes Ronald Reagan and uses phrases such as "gosh" and "heck." He pledges U.S. dominance with an "American century."
On the trail, Romney can be wooden and seemed to acknowledge his oratorical limitations when asked at a recent town hall meeting in Sioux City to identify his (and the GOP's) biggest weakness:
"One of the things my party needs to do better, and I'm sure I need to do better as well — something I learned from my first campaign — is to make sure we communicate our message clearly," he said. "Gosh darn it. We don't do a good job of that." Then addressing himself, he added: "'Come on, Mitt. Come on Republicans. Do a better job of communicating our message.''"
Willard "Mitt" Romney — named after his father's friend, J. Willard Marriott, the hotel magnate — grew up understanding the cross-pollination of politics and business.
His father, George Romney, was CEO of the now-defunct American Motors Corp. when Detroit was flourishing in the 1950s and early 1960s. He then served three terms as Michigan's governor. (His mother, Lenore, was an unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate.)
As a young man, Mitt Romney saw close up how the campaign spotlight can be unforgiving, a single gaffe devastating. When the elder Romney was running for president in 1967, he faltered famously when he declared he'd originally supported the Vietnam War — he became an opponent — because of a "brainwashing" by the U.S military. He eventually dropped out.
Mitt Romney was raised in the affluent Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills and attended Cranbrook, a private boys' school where he was known as a jokester, a solid student and a determined, if not natural, athlete.
Eric Muirhead, then captain of the school's cross-country team, remembers when they were seniors and Romney, then new to the squad, was the final runner one day in a 2-mile race. Romney, he recalls, stumbled and kept getting back up, refusing to quit, eventually crossing the finish line as the crowd cheered.
"That was the single most impressive race I had ever witnessed," Muirhead says. "He's tough. He's a fighter. He kept getting stronger and stronger and stronger. He finished every race he ran that season."
Romney enrolled in Stanford, then served as a Mormon missionary in France, where he was involved in a car accident that killed one of his passengers. He was so severely injured that a police officer assumed he was dead. The other driver was at fault.
When he returned home, Romney attended Brigham Young University and married his high school sweetheart, Ann Davies, who converted to Mormonism. He once described himself as a "true-blue through-and-through" believer; in Massachusetts, he was a bishop and lay leader in the Mormon church, offering pastoral advice.
Four years ago, Romney worked to reassure voters, especially evangelicals suspicious of Mormonism, that he was a Bible-reading Christian. He also delivered a faith-and-values speech, saying he would "not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations" of the presidency and would maintain a firm separation between them.
This time, Romney's focus has been the economy as he trumpets his business credentials and criticizes President Barack Obama. He's suggested the president is an elitist who gets foreign policy advice from the "Harvard faculty lounge" — though Romney, himself, has joint law and business degrees from Harvard (and though Romney held a fundraiser this spring at New York's Harvard Club.)
After Harvard, Romney eventually joined Bain & Co., a Boston-based consulting firm, where he quickly emerged as a rising star. He was asked to lead a spinoff, Bain Capital, a private equity firm that provided management consulting and launched and revitalized promising companies. Romney has touted Domino's Pizza, Sports Authority and Staples among the successes.
But Bain's record of acquiring, then selling companies also had some agonizing consequences — plant closings, layoffs and bankruptcies. In a 2007 New York Times interview, Romney, reflecting on the cutbacks, said: "Sometimes the medicine is a little bitter, but it is necessary to save the life of the patient."
In a recent debate, Romney said Bain had invested in about 100 different companies, "not all of them succeeded" but "tens of thousands of jobs" were created.
A Washington Post fact-check concluded Romney's record "proves that he can produce staggering returns for investors" but said the campaign offered "no definitive proof that Bain added more jobs that it eliminated" during his tenure.
Romney's work at Bain cemented his business reputation. It also helped make him very rich.
In 1994, he took a plunge into politics at the deep end. He challenged Ted Kennedy.
Mitt Romney, Senate candidate, was a supporter of abortion rights, an advocate of gun control measures, a friend to gays, a self-proclaimed independent during the Reagan-Bush era
"He wanted to look a lot like Kennedy, without being Kennedy," says Paul Watanabe, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
In fact, Romney wrote a letter to a gay Republican group in Massachusetts during that campaign saying he'd "provide more effective leadership" on gay rights issues than Kennedy.
Some moderate positions Romney staked out then — and later when running for governor — have long given way to more conservative ones.
The one-time defender of abortion rights now believes the U.S. Supreme Court should reverse Roe vs. Wade and return the issue to the states to decide on the legality.
The Senate candidate who said in 1994 he did not "line up" with the National Rifle Association signed up for a lifetime membership in the group 12 years later, as he was considering his first presidential run.
The gubernatorial candidate who said in 2002 that he opposed tax increases but would not sign a no-tax pledge, signed one when running for president five years later, boasting about it and criticizing his rivals for not doing so.
To Romney, these shifts were a natural evolution. To critics, they were political expediency to fit an increasingly conservative GOP.
Romney tasted defeat in his first campaign but found a new outlet for his management skills. He took over the floundering, scandal-ridden Salt Lake Olympic Games and is credited with turning them into a financial success.
Gillespie, his former aide, says Romney bucked up a demoralized staff, recruited people with Olympic experience, and tackled problems with an orderly management style that involved asking probing questions.
"When somebody says, 'Look, this is the way it's always done,' his first reaction is going to be, 'Not necessarily. Let's talk about why,'" she recalls. "There's a really intense challenging of the status quo."
Romney's revitalized image and accolades served as a springboard into the Massachusetts governor's chair, where even critics say he was good in a crisis.
Beth Myers, his then-chief of staff, describes Romney as someone who "wants the facts and figures but he wants to hear it from the smart people who know their stuff."
As governor, Romney began moving right on social issues. He announced, for instance, his opposition to abortion. At the same time, he started eyeing a bigger prize — the White House.
As head of the Republican Governors Association, Romney traveled the country, making connections, gaining exposure and distancing himself from blue-state Massachusetts.
But it was back in Massachusetts where he captured the national spotlight for his landmark universal health care law — a partial blueprint for Obama's plan. Both have an individual mandate that requires everyone to carry health insurance, an element that conservative Republicans denounce as Big Brother intervention.
Romney defends the law as "a state solution for a state problem" and vows to repeal Obama's plan.
That limited endorsement disappoints Joe Gruber, professor of economics at MIT who consulted on the Massachusetts health plan: "He's the hero of health care reform if he likes it or not," he says. "I hope 20 years from now ... he can sit back and appreciate what an amazing thing he did ... even if he feels now he has to run away from it."
A time 20 years from now, though, is not Romney's focus. He concentrates instead on the trail ahead and on the challenges raised by a string of contenders, one after another. Still, he cannot avoid questions about how he has changed and where he stands on this or that.
Always, he has a ready reply, as he did at a New Hampshire editorial board:
"I'm as consistent," he said, "as human beings can be."
AP researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.