In June of 1968 Mitt Romney died. Twenty-one years old, he had spent the previous two years on a Mormon mission in France, trying to bring French people into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints at a time when they were generally more inclined to lecture a young man from Michigan about America's misadventures in Vietnam. Several months earlier he had watched the presidential aspirations of his father, George, the governor of Michigan, implode over a single word—"brainwashing"—intemperately uttered. But these tribulations had scarcely discouraged Mitt, and he had begun to think hard about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
One night, as his mission was coming to an end, the Citroën he was driving was struck head-on by a Mercedes coming around a curve. Of the five passengers Romney was carrying, several were injured and one died. The policeman who found Romney on the side of the road wrote "Il est mort" on his passport; he had been declared dead.
Back in the States, Mitt's girlfriend, Ann Davies, got a phone call from George Romney saying that there had been an accident and they'd heard reports that Mitt was dead. So it was that Ann, a senior in high school, ended up spending hours at the Romneys' Bloomfield Hills home that night, trusting desperately in the invulnerability of youth and in her boyfriend's capacity to survive. In the middle of the night word finally arrived from a family friend—Sargent Shriver, the U.S. ambassador to France. The policeman had been wrong: Mitt was alive.
Today, with George Bush in his second term and a vice-president who wants no part of the top job when it opens up in 2009, a man once thought dead walks the earth as one of a select few—among them Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist; Senator John McCain; maybe Florida's governor, Jeb Bush, and New York's former mayor Rudy Giuliani—with a legitimate shot at being the next Republican presidential nominee.
As a conservative Republican in the bluest of blue states—he is in his third year as governor of Massachusetts—Romney embodies intriguing national electoral possibilities. "The Republican race is totally and completely wide open," Whit Ayres, a pollster based in Virginia, told me, making the case that Romney is worth taking very seriously. "It's hard to identify another year when there was no favorite for the Republican nomination."
One thing Romney has going for him right now, of course, is his relative novelty. On the national scene people haven't yet had a chance to grow tired of him, or to examine the warts and the skeletons. There's a chance that he'll turn out to be the political flavor of the month; that before long the Republican Party's attention will move on to the next new thing. By some measures Romney hasn't worn well in Massachusetts: this spring his approval ratings fell from a high of 56 percent to 43 percent, as he staked out unpopular positions against stem-cell research and gay marriage.
But here's betting that Romney won't fade away. There are too many things in his favor. To name just a few: As a Republican in a Democratic state, he can plausibly claim to be a moderate when it suits him. He has an illustrious pedigree (his father was a Cabinet secretary as well as a governor and a presidential candidate). He has an impressive business background (which is attractive to both Main Street and Wall Street Republicans). His stands against stem-cell research and gay marriage, as well as abortion, make him appealing to social conservatives. His state adjoins New Hampshire, site of the first primary. And at fifty-eight he is virile and handsome. The guy just looks like a president—hardly a negligible consideration. The abiding uncertainty is how his Mormonism will play. Much depends on whether it is seen as irrelevant, as an interesting quirk, or—worst case—as something that will scare off both red-state fundamentalists (who have sometimes seen Mormonism as non-Christian) and blue-state secularists.
How did a Mormon become governor of a state where Roman Catholics are by far the largest religious group? And how did a now avowed conservative rise to power in a place where, in the words of Massachusetts's Democratic Party chairman, Phil Johnston, George Bush is "the Devil"? What, in short, is Mitt Romney's secret?
The answer is not simple. But I can tell you that, frankly, it begins with those presidential looks. Standing over six feet, graying neatly at his temples, with a sharply cut jaw and the whitest teeth I've ever seen, he looks in certain lights like the actor Ted Danson (most famous for playing Sam Malone on Cheers), only handsomer and more wholesome, and with real hair. In other lights he resembles the gray-templed comic-book superhero Reed Richards (a.k.a. "Mr. Fantastic," of the Fantastic Four), whose superpower is the ability to stretch himself across great distances and into impossible positions. But his appeal also comes from the natural ease and warmth that one feels in the vicinity of a man who unselfconsciously uses words like "neat" and "gosh" and "wow," as if everyone spoke that way. "Wow," he said when I piled a bunch of biographies of his dad onto his desk in the Massachusetts statehouse one day. "My goodness! It's been a long time." A speech of his in New Hampshire in June was laden with his typical expletives. "Gosh … what a great group," he said when introduced. "Boy, you are so great." And, about an old lady who introduced him before a speech, "Ruthie is amazing."
In the spring I went to Boston's Fleet Center, where Romney was attending a basketball game between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers. He was sitting courtside next to the governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, who was there to pay off a gambling debt. (As a result of having lost a bet with Romney when the New England Patriots beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl in January, Rendell was required to belt out the national anthem with his wife before the game.) With Philadelphia leading Boston 38-12, I approached Romney, who, like Rendell, had donned a Patriots jersey for the occasion.
He waved in greeting and said, "What brings you here today?" I am not by nature a toucher, especially of politicians I barely know, but when Romney extended his hand, something about his demeanor compelled me to complement the handshake with a pat of bonhomie to his side. "Good to see ya," he said. "Not much of a quarter. Holy cow! This is the last time I'm going to invite the governor of Pennsylvania to Massachusetts. He's bringing the bad vibes here." Romney introduced me to Rendell. Slouched in his seat, the husky, balding Democrat said, "This will be the kiss of death, but if I had to choose the next Republican president, if there's going to be one it would be Governor Romney."