WASHINGTON — When it comes to debates, Mitt Romney loves the rules.
The eyes of millions of voters upon him, the Republican candidate is quick to poke holes in his rival's arguments. But he's just as ready to take the moderator to task when he believes the predetermined ground rules have been breached.
Expect more of the same Tuesday when he and President Barack Obama square off for the third and final time.
Romney bickered with moderator Jim Lehrer in the first presidential debate over whose turn it was to have the final say on taxes. "Jim, the president began this segment, so I think I get the last word," he said. He lodged a similar complaint in the second debate when denied one last chance to weigh in, prompting moderator Candy Crowley to interject that "it doesn't quite work like that."
"The last part, it's for the two of you to talk to one another, and it isn't quite as ordered as you think," she said.
It is that ordered for Romney, who seems at his best and most relaxed in settings with clearly defined parameters that many others experience as overly rigid or stilted. Romney's fondness for the rules mirrors other traits that have been frequent themes throughout his personal and professional life: organization, personal discipline and meticulous attention to detail.
For voters, it offers a window into the fastidiousness and precision he would likely bring with him to the Oval Office.
"He's highly analytical, highly linear in his thinking," said Doug Gross, who chaired Romney's 2008 campaign in Iowa. "When someone steps out of line and your logic is linear, that causes dissonance in your brain."
Romney's partiality to rules in the debate setting was on display throughout the Republican primary, where he resisted efforts by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., to relax them. Gingrich, whose come-from-behind victory in South Carolina in January was fueled by robust debate performances, wanted audiences to be able to participate more freely in future debates.
Not so fast, said Romney, arguing that candidates seeking the nomination ought to be prepared for the much stricter rules imposed during general-election debates.
You might have thought Romney himself was the moderator in a debate last October when he cut off Texas Gov. Rick Perry to lay down the letter of the law.
"You get 30 seconds," Romney told his opponent. "The way the rules work here is that I get 60 seconds, and then you get 30 seconds to respond, right?"
It's not just during debates. The tendency to abide by rules permeates the way the former Massachusetts governor has carried himself as a candidate, a businessman and a patriarch.
On the campaign trail, Romney typically refuses to answer questions from the traveling band of reporters that constantly shadows him — except for specially designated times.
"We have press avails and press conferences almost every day, and that's when I answer the questions," Romney said to reporters shouting out questions as he greeted voters in last November in Tampa, Fla.
As a businessman, Romney was known for his systematic, data-driven approach to evaluating risk. Former colleagues have described a man reluctant to entertain ethical gray areas, motivated by his sense that the best ideas thrive when the playing field is level.
"He has an intrinsic sense of fairness and playing by the rules," Gross said. "When he sees someone trying to sidestep or bend the rules, he thinks it's potentially disruptive to the entire process and the entire institution."
Such scrupulousness extends deeply into Romney's personal life, where he firmly adheres to the directives of his faith, abstaining from caffeine and alcohol and donating a substantial portion of his income to the Mormon Church.
Personal responsibility and discipline also seem to be values he expects those around him to uphold. A Vanity Fair profile of Romney in February detailed the strict rules that govern Romney road trips: No unscheduled bathroom breaks for the kids, except when the family stops for gas.
At their summer home in Wolfeboro, N.H., Romney's family holds an annual series of highly regimented games dubbed the "Romney Olympics." They partake in events like nail-hammering, where participants have to hammer a certain number of nails into a board. It's normally one of Romney's best events — he doesn't tend to do as well in the more athletic competitions, like running — but he lost a recent round because he put one of the nails in off-center.
In the Romney household, nails that aren't hammered in straight don't count.
Even the most mundane tasks aren't exempt from a wrong and right way of doing things. Asked about their spousal pet peeves in September on ABC's "Live! With Kelly and Michael," Ann Romney said her husband takes issue with the way she squeezes her toothpaste.
"That's right," he replied. "She doesn't go from the bottom and work up, and she leaves the top off."
Associated Press writer Kasie Hunt contributed to this report.
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