David L Ryan, Pool, Associated Press
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?'"
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