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The Holy Cow! Candidate

Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, loves data, hates waste, and reveres Dwight Eisenhower. He's also the Next Big Thing in the Republican Party. But can anyone so clean-cut, so pure of character, and (by gosh!) so square overcome the "two Ms"—Mormonism and Massachusetts—to be our next president?

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."

Of course, Romney can be as ruthless and determined as the next politician. One prominent Utah politician who is a fan of his told me that when the circumstances call for it, Romney is "extremely tough" and unafraid to engage in direct combat, even with his political allies. And more than one witness has described to me how he can "eviscerate" opponents who try to take him on in meetings without having their facts straight.

But this is a side of Romney that reporters seldom see behind the golly-gee-willikers boyishness. A few weeks before the Celtics game, when he took me on a tour of his office in the Massachusetts statehouse, he was like a kid showing off a new poster of Ken Griffey Jr. or Tom Brady. On his desk were pictures of his mother and father and wife, and of four of his five sons floating with their respective families in a lake on a sunny day. In a cabinet on one wall was a black-and-white photo of Mitt and his wife with his parents in the White House during his father's tenure as Nixon's secretary of housing and urban development. There were Romney for President postcards and buttons from his father's presidential run. And there was the Bible on which his father had sworn his oath of office each of the three times he was inaugurated as governor of Michigan.

"And then there's a story behind this," Romney said, pulling out a plate with a picture of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower painted on it. "Not only was Eisenhower one of my favorite presidents; when we became grandparents, you get to choose what the kids will call you. Some call you Papa. I chose Ike. I'm Ike, and Ann is Mamie." (Actually, this is partly wishful thinking: Romney's son Tagg later told me that although his daughter, the oldest grandchild, did in fact call her grandfather "Ike" at his request, she was the only one of the eight grandchildren who ever did. When later grandchildren started to call him Papa, she went along.)

Eisenhower was a reputable two-term president, and a reasonably popular one at that. There are reasons to admire him. But he's not generally thought worthy of Mt. Rushmore. At any rate, how many politicians today would cite him as their role model? Romney does, and that says a lot about what kind of man, and what kind of politician, he is.

Romney's brief for Eisenhower stems in large part from his respect for the man's character and personal rectitude. For instance, while acknowledging the power of Thomas Jefferson's rhetoric, Romney said he felt disappointed by his personal shortcomings (see Hemings, Sally). "I believe people who are in a position of visibility and leadership affect the character of young people and individuals who look to them as leaders," he told me. "And in some respects just as important as their policies and positions is their character and their substance. What for me makes people like Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and John Adams and George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan such extraordinary leaders is that they had integrity through and through. What they were on the inside and what they said on the outside was harmonious. There are a lot of people like that. I think that if people try to live a very different personal life not consistent with the role they've assumed as a governor or a senator or a president, we lose something as a nation."

He continued, "Many would say, 'Dwight Eisenhower—what did he do?' I would say he did the interstate highway system, and he took on communism, and so forth, but let's put that aside for a moment. He also was a person whose leadership during World War II made him someone the entire nation revered and respected. And there's nothing wrong with having heroes in positions of prominence."

Romney is not a hero, but he has edged into a position of prominence on the national political stage. In politics such personal attributes as looks and personality can take you only so far. So how has he managed to achieve such visibility in merely his third year as governor? Partly it is a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The wrong place: Massachusetts, famously one of the most progressive states in the Union, where voters are ardent in their support of stem-cell research and other liberal social policies that Romney opposes. The wrong time: Not even a year into Romney's term, in November of 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that marriage in Massachusetts would no longer be limited to unions between men and women but would be defined as the exclusive, voluntary "union of two persons as spouses." The majority based its decision on the equal-protection and due-process provisions of the Massachusetts constitution, saying that they guarantee the right of same-sex couples to marry.

Though the court's decision was rendered in explicitly juridical terms, not moral ones, Romney felt that the act reeked of judicial activism, and that it trampled on millennia of tradition. He was also vocal about discouraging out-of-state gay couples from coming to Massachusetts to get married. The story, and in particular Romney's resistance to the ruling, propelled him into the national news. Recently, in speeches in Missouri, South Carolina, and Utah, Romney lamented that as a result of gay marriage's legality in Massachusetts some town clerks want to replace "mother" and "father" on birth certificates with "parent A" and "parent B." (Some gay couples, he explained to a Republican crowd in South Carolina, "are actually having children born to them.")

I asked Romney why he didn't just accept the ruling as law even if he disagreed with it, as he has with the state's statutes on abortion. "During the [2002] campaign I said what my position was," he told me. "I said I was in favor of traditional marriage and not Vermont-style civil unions or gay marriage. And this state had not yet had the chance to have the final word on that issue. I would like the citizens to have the final word." He is pushing for an amendment to the state constitution that would outlaw gay marriage.

"Once the legal process is completed and the amendment is either successful or not successful, I will live by the law of the land," he continued. "I might not agree with it, and I'll say it's wrong and people have made the wrong choice, but I do abide by the law."

True to his word, Romney has not tried to change the laws governing abortion in Massachusetts. But there are those—and not just his critics—who say he has not always been entirely truthful, or at least not entirely clear, about what his views on abortion are. One Friday in early June, Romney held a makeshift press conference in New Hampshire to address comments made by his adviser and friend Mike Murphy, who had said of Romney in a story just published in the conservative National Review, "He's been a pro-life Mormon faking it as a pro-choice friendly." Since the story broke Murphy had been telling everyone that his comments had been taken out of context (explaining that the "faking it" line conveyed what he thought Romney's liberal critics were saying), but the press demanded to hear it from the governor himself.

Romney was stiff, almost robotic, as he read a prepared statement. "While I've said time and again that I oppose abortion, I've also indicated that I would not change in any way the abortion laws in Massachusetts. And I've honored that promise. I take my promises very seriously. As to the comment [of] one of the advisers associated with my campaign, he expressed to me clarification of his comments. He's a good friend and I accept that clarification."

After dodging the inevitable question from one of the assembled journalists about whether he planned to run for president (Romney just laughed amiably in response, as he always does), he went back inside the gray, eye-deadening walls of the Radisson Hotel Manchester, where he would soon be speaking to a group of elderly Republican women and eating a largely inedible dinner—one of many he will have to ingest should he decide he wants to succeed Bush in 2009.

The annual Saint Patrick's Day breakfast is an old Boston tradition. Held in South Boston on the Sunday after Saint Patrick's Day, the event is an occasion for Massachusetts pols to sling barbs at one another between rounds of local ballads such as "Charlie on the MTA" and "Southie Is My Hometown."

This year, naturally, Governor Romney was the primary target of this heavily Democratic crowd. Speakers ribbed him for, among other things, his exploratory political trips out of state and his opposition to cloning human embryos. "I don't know if the governor knows its advantages," a Democratic state senator named Jack Hart said. "I mean, he could run for governor and for president at the same time. And then if he was to run for president, he could choose his perfect running mate: himself."

But the best one-liners at Romney's expense came from Romney. Standing at the podium to begin his remarks, he said, "Well, it's great to be here in Iowa this morning—whoops, wrong speech." He threw down a piece of paper and then continued. "Seriously, it's good to be here in Massachusetts. I'm visiting for a few days." Everybody cracked up, and from that moment the room was his. He kept up a genuinely funny line of patter—much of it self-deprecating and based on his presumptive aspirations to higher office—for eight minutes; in comedy terms he killed. (Sample joke: As a Mormon, he said, "I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman.")

Not so long ago it would have been hard to imagine Mitt Romney—a Midwest-raised Mormon businessman—joking around with a bunch of Irish and Italian Democrats at a political backslapping session in Boston. If he had initially hoped to go into politics, he would have been best served by staying in Michigan, where Romney was a household name. Instead Willard Mitt Romney (he shed the Willard in kindergarten) went from Bloomfield Hills to Palo Alto (he began his undergraduate education at Stanford University) to France to Provo, Utah (he completed his undergraduate education at Brigham Young University, finishing first in his class), before coming with his young wife, Ann, to Massachusetts in 1971, to attend Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School. There he overlapped with George W. Bush. ("We shared one class," Romney told me. "I don't recall that either one of us stood out in that class. I don't recall anything he said, and I don't imagine he remembers anything I said either … If I knew where he was gonna go, I would have been on him like white on rice.")

After graduation from HBS, Romney entered the burgeoning field of consulting, and in the late 1970s he landed at Bain & Company. Until then the business of consulting had been kind of hit-and-run: a firm would take on a client to help with a particular issue, provide some analysis, and then send the client on its way. Bain did things differently. Bainies, as they were known, became deeply involved with the companies they advised, learning everything about their businesses, the industries they worked in, and the competitors they were up against. When an analysis was finished, Bainies didn't pack up and leave. They stayed with the company, making sure it continued to apply the lessons it had learned.

Romney distinguished himself at Bain, and in 1984 he was asked to lead a venture-capital spinoff. Starting out as a modest enterprise, with a handful of people from Bain & Company and roughly $30 million, Bain Capital was soon wildly successful. Among the first companies it invested in was Staples, an office-supply store conceived by one of Romney's business-school contemporaries, which had been shunned by some venture capitalists; Romney and others saw the potential. In 1986 Staples, Incorporated had one store. Today it has nearly 1,700.

But while Bain Capital flourished, its progenitor, Bain & Company, struggled, and by 1990 it was on the verge of financial collapse. Romney was called back to the firm, where he restructured the debt, persuaded all but one of the partners to stay for at least a year, and installed a new leadership team. The company survived; and as a symbolic gesture, Romney drew a salary of only one dollar a year. (As governor of Massachusetts he draws no salary at all. A lesson he says his father taught him is that one shouldn't get involved in public life until it is a question of service rather than employment.)

Romney took more than skills and knowledge away from Bain; he also acquired a way of thinking, a Weltanschauung—call it the Bain world view. He sees waste and inefficiency in almost moral terms; in fact, his crusade against inefficiency is practically a governing philosophy. "Government inefficiency wastes resources and places a burden on citizens and employers that's harmful to our future," he told me. "And anytime I see waste, or patronage, it bothers me."

"As a nation we are in a global economic race with huge populations in Asia," he continued, "where economies are growing at extraordinary rates with highly educated, highly motivated, and in many cases highly entrepreneurial individuals. Anytime government puts waste and excessive burdens of regulation and unnecessary taxation on its citizens, it's putting us behind in that race."

Romney loves the very vocabulary of business—the rhythm of charts and diagrams and boardroom presentations. One afternoon, standing in a newly built Silver Line bus station in South Boston, he introduced a transportation plan that he hoped would be a blueprint for the next twenty years. Speaking in terms that only a consultant could love, he said, "Let me now take a journey with you in … PowerPoint."

As reporters flipped through their handouts, I found myself agreeing with Phil Johnston, the influential Massachusetts Democrat, who had told me that Romney "thinks politics consists of making announcements and pronouncements" and never actually connects with his constituents, because his presentations never descend from a distant level of almost mathematical analysis.

Romney concedes his love of analysis, up to a point. "I like data," he says. He sees issues such as transportation and health care and education as analytical problems to be solved—things that can be tinkered with and fixed, like an unprofitable company.

As CEO-governor Romney makes at least theoretical sense at times, especially when he's talking about budget and fiscal issues. But when he moves beyond business principles to innovate in social policy, things can get kind of weird. Consider, for example, his proposal to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts. The Romney version of the death penalty, he has said, will be foolproof "to the extent that is humanly possible," because it will use, among other things, a panel of scientific experts and additional judicial safeguards to determine guilt beyond any shadow of a doubt. That's an expensive and cumbersome plan from a man who says he wants government to run with extreme efficiency. It also appears doomed to fail in the state legislature.

I asked Romney why he would spend political capital crusading for the death penalty when his plan would cost so much to put in place and in any event will most likely never be voted into law. "The first answer is—and I think it's really hard for people to believe and understand this—because I said I would during the campaign. More than once during gubernatorial debates I was asked, 'Do you support the death penalty?' Yes. And then people said, 'But how are you going to keep from executing the innocent?' And I said by having a higher standard of care—something beyond 'reasonable doubt.' It should be clear and convincing evidence. Scientific evidence."

The importance of using evidence and rigor and logic and data is something Romney gets in part from the Bain world view. But the importance of doing what you say and, significantly, of being careful what you say is something he learned from his father.

In appearance and demeanor Mitt is clearly his father's son: forty years after Newsweek described George Romney as being straight from "central casting," the former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich (who competed in the Massachusetts gubernatorial primary as a Democrat in 2002) described Mitt in exactly the same words. George Romney was born in 1907 to a farming couple at a Mormon outpost in Mexico. Forced from their home in 1912 by the army of Pancho Villa, the Romneys migrated around the West (they spent one impoverished winter in Idaho eating little but potatoes) before settling in Salt Lake City. George worked his way out of poverty, starting as a senator's stenographer in Washington, D.C., and going on to scale the heights of the automotive industry; he was the general manager of the Automobile Manufacturers Association and later the president of American Motors. He also became active in Michigan politics, and in 1962 the Republican Party deemed him the worthiest gubernatorial candidate.

As governor, Romney didn't always toe the GOP line. A champion of civil rights and a perceived moderate, he walked out on Barry Goldwater's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco in 1964. He also instituted Michigan's first income tax. But in the late 1960s the Republican Party was still a place with room for the likes of Nelson Rockefeller, and Romney was an early favorite for his party's 1968 presidential nomination. Not for long, though. His candidacy was badly shaken when—though he had initially supported U.S. military involvement in Vietnam—he described an extremely disenchanting trip he had made to visit the troops there and said, "I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam, not only by the generals but also by the diplomatic corps over there, and they do a very thorough job." He dropped out of the race two weeks before the New Hampshire primary.

"It did tell me you have to be very, very careful in your choice of words," Mitt said when I asked him about his dad's experience. "The careful selection of words is something I'm more attuned to because Dad fell into that quagmire."

Mitt Romney's initial foray into politics was not a success. In 1994 he spent $3 million of his own money in a campaign to topple the mighty Ted Kennedy from his perch in the U.S. Senate. Why did he waste money on such a quixotic project? "I felt very strongly that the social programs of the sixties and seventies, the liberal agenda—I'll call it the Johnson agenda—had hurt working families, had hurt the poor in many instances," he told me. "And while the liberals had the best of intentions, I felt that the programs themselves had created a permanent underclass and had fostered poverty instead of eliminating it."

At first few people paid Romney's candidacy much heed. After all, in his six previous Senate campaigns Kennedy had scarcely been challenged, so what did he have to fear from an upstart venture capitalist with no political experience? More than he had bargained for, as it turned out. Less than two months before the election a complacent Kennedy was stunned to find himself virtually tied with Romney in the polls. All of a sudden everyone was paying attention: could a Kennedy actually lose in Massachusetts?

Once awakened, the Kennedy apparatus cranked up. Because Romney had no political record to run against, Kennedy ran against his private-sector career, attacking his business decisions and the way he ran his companies. Striking employees from a paper company called Ampad (which was owned by Bain Capital) traveled from central Indiana to Boston to rail against Romney's alleged disregard for manufacturing jobs. "I got caught up in all the 'Romney's a venture capitalist, he's laid off people,'" Romney said. "Well, no, I didn't—it wasn't my factory." But the damage was done. Kennedy won going away.

The defeat was jarring for Romney, who "was embarrassed to have asked so many people to work for him without delivering results," according to Tagg Romney, the oldest of Mitt's five sons. "At that point he was so used to delivering—delivering shareholder results to investors, turning Bain & Company around. Losing the Senate race was his first major experience with defeat."

"I was taught a lesson by one of the great politicians of our age," Romney joked to me. "Never, ever run against Ted Kennedy. At least not in Massachusetts. Give me any other state and I'm all up for it."

Afew years ago the smart money would have bet that that state would be Utah, where the Romney name carries great currency. It was in Utah that Romney returned to the public stage as the savior of the 2002 Olympic Games.

In 1998 the organizers of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City were accused of having used bribes—including a college scholarship for the child of an African Olympic official—to secure the votes necessary to bring the games to Utah. Though the Utah officials were eventually cleared in court of outright criminality, a stain was left on Salt Lake City's pristine image. The morale of the Olympics' staff had gone into free fall. Revenues were not meeting costs. New sponsorship had dried up. The marketing program was effectively dead. In desperation, state leaders turned to Romney, who had spent the previous four years back in the private sector. He was cool to the idea at first; he had never been much of a sportsman, and knew very little about the Olympics. But, prodded by Ann, he took the job, as president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, and by applying the Bain world view (emphasizing the need to be disciplined about spending, he scaled back the budgets for the opening and closing ceremonies and cut many other Olympics extras), he saved the day. When the games ended, in February of 2002, people were talking not about payoffs to African Olympic officials but, rather, about the Canadian skaters who had been shafted by a French judge. They were also talking about the skill of Mitt Romney.

"Mitt personified the 2002 Winter Olympic Games," Rocky Anderson, the mayor of Salt Lake City, told me. Anderson is a Democrat, and a strong supporter of abortion rights and gay marriage. Yet he endorsed Romney for the 2002 gubernatorial run because of Romney's success with the games. "I've told all my Democratic friends that they politically need to be aware of him," Anderson says.

Republicans in Massachusetts and elsewhere took note of Romney's success, and his political star rose rapidly. For a time he avoided responding to rumors about his future (would he run for office in Utah? return to Massachusetts?), and he had expressed his reluctance to run against a fellow Republican—which seemed to rule out Massachusetts for the moment, since it was then governed by its third consecutive Republican, the acting governor Jane Swift. But Swift's poll numbers were dropping by the day, and both Democrats and Republicans were attacking her. A "Draft Mitt" campaign sprouted up in the state, leading Swift to gripe that "powerful men" were trying to force her to step aside.

Though it seems in retrospect that Romney's entrance into the 2002 race was a foregone conclusion, both Romneys say that's not so. Ann Romney had grown to love living in Utah. (Among other reasons, she'd been found to have multiple sclerosis a few years earlier, and horseback riding in the Utah mountains was therapeutic.) And they still bore the scars of the 1994 campaign. But the forces beckoning Romney to run were too strong to resist. Nearly everyone, it seemed, wanted him. Swift saw the writing on the wall: the day Romney declared he would be running in the Republican primary, she ceded the nomination without a fight.

Democrats tried in vain to keep him off the ballot, challenging his residency by citing his Utah driver's license and the fact that his home in Park City was classified as his primary residence. During the general election Romney said that he (like Governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci before him) was a different kind of Republican: a Massachusetts-friendly Republican, fiscally conservative but socially moderate and respectful of different ethnic origins and sexual orientations. He wouldn't mess with the pro-choice laws on the state books, he said. Meanwhile, in time-honored fashion, he painted the Democratic nominee, Shannon O'Brien, who was state treasurer, as a Beacon Hill insider, and himself as the outsider unsullied by previous association with statehouse cronyism. In the end the race was reasonably close, but it was Romney who took the oath of office in January of 2003.

Some people saw the inclusion of Democrats in his cabinet as a sign of a kinder, gentler era of state politics, but they were soon disabused of that notion. Romney called (with limited success) for the most sweeping changes in state government in a generation, aiming to merge previously independent agencies and eliminate jobs. He threatened to eliminate the position of president of the state's university system; its occupant, the former state senate president William Bulger, had upset Romney by taking the Fifth during congressional testimony about his brother, the mobster "Whitey" Bulger, who is wanted in connection with the murders of nineteen people. Romney's plan was defeated in the state senate, but Bulger eventually resigned anyway. Faced with a $3 billion deficit and having pledged not to raise taxes, Romney slashed social programs, the higher-education budget, and local aid to cities and towns. Although he boasts that the state ran a $700 million budget surplus in 2004, Michael Widmer, the head of the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, points out that the number does not reflect a true structural surplus—only the fact that revenues came in higher last year than the conservative targets the Romney administration and the legislature had set.

Romney doesn't have enough votes in the legislature to sustain a veto, so his initiatives are repeatedly thwarted. He put a lot of effort into campaigning for local Republican candidates in 2004, only to see his party lose three seats in the statehouse.

Steve Adams, formerly the head of the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank in Boston, and now with the Small Business Administration, concedes that Romney doesn't have much to show in the way of legislative accomplishment. But that, Adams says, is because the Democrat-dominated statehouse "won't give him anything." Phil Johnston, the chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, isn't buying this: "To say 'I can't do anything' because the legislature won't let him is ridiculous. Romney doesn't reach out to people. He tries to destroy them and then says it's nothing personal." But Adams argues that what Romney has succeeded in doing is reshaping public-policy debate. Adams says that in recent history the only way for Republicans to get anything done in Massachusetts was to cave in completely on certain issues in exchange for compromise on others. According to Adams, Romney is saying, "I'm not willing to compromise over here for this win. I'm willing to come halfway with you on an issue, but I'm not going to give up on issue A so that I can win on issue B."

When I told Romney what Adams had said, the governor told me he appreciated the free pass he had been given, but that he would respectfully decline to take it—because he has managed to pass some measures and doesn't consider any of the outstanding ones to have failed irredeemably yet. He handed me a document that listed ninety-seven promises he had made during his 2002 campaign, each one falling into one of three categories: "done," "ongoing," or "not yet." An asterisk indicated those promises on which he had tried to act but had been rebuffed by the legislature. There is something distinctly Romneyesque about the document: the businessman's ledgerlike mentality; the deep concern that he be seen as a man of his word, a man who will try his hardest to deliver on whatever he promises; and the sheer earnestness. It's the same earnestness that's reflected in his ability to toggle from Bain analytic mode to golly-gee mode in seconds flat. I once heard him, in the kitchen of a home in a fifty-five-and-over community near Cape Cod, go from rattling off numbers concerning COBRA payments and health-insurance premiums to saying eagerly, "Well, let's have some of this banana bread!" Romney's sincerity, oddly enough, can sometimes make him seem artificial—but it's a sincerity that others can only hope to fake.

Which doesn't mean, of course, that Romney is incapable of being politically coy when it suits him. Though he hasn't publicly announced any decisions yet, he clearly does have one eye fixed on bigger things. In Spartanburg, South Carolina, speaking before a packed room in late February, he railed against gay marriage and the creation of embryos for use in stem-cell research. Many of South Carolina's most important party leaders and power brokers showed up to watch him.

Romney has kept up his travels to key 2008 primary states, and has been doing political fundraising nationwide. Meanwhile, some of his friends have created a collection of political-action committees, dubbed the Commonwealth PACs. These were started, as his close friend and former business colleague Bob White told me, "to help Republicans primarily at the state level around the country." Last year the PACs contributed $76,000 to local Republicans in Iowa, site of the momentum-generating first caucus.

But all this will be for naught if Romney can't answer one of the biggest questions that would dog his candidacy. As it happens, it's a question that had slipped my mind as I was discussing the prospect of a national Romney candidacy with Ted Kennedy on the phone one Saturday afternoon. (Once Romney's nemesis and conqueror, Kennedy now speaks respectfully of him, as does Boston's Democratic mayor, Tom Menino; both Kennedy and Menino have collaborated with Romney on various projects. Romney and Senator John Kerry, on the other hand, seem to want nothing to do with each other.) I was winding down our conversation when Senator Kennedy interrupted me. "The one question you didn't ask," he said, "was about Mormonism—whether it would hurt him in a national campaign."

"I was about to," I said.

"The answer is no," Kennedy said. "We've moved on. That died with my brother Jack."

Romney himself says he serves the people, not the Book of Mormon. But though the matter should have died with the election of Jack Kennedy (who himself spoke on religious freedom at the Mormon Tabernacle in 1960), Romney's religion remains—as a prominent Republican strategist who worked on both George W. Bush campaigns told me—"the other M."

"There are two Ms—Massachusetts and Mormonism—and they're the elephants in the room," this strategist said. "And the question is whether they step on him or ride him to victory. I think that's a challenge for him to overcome in conservative Christian circles. Romney's people have to have a strategy to beat it, to win on that point."

When I told him Romney's line about keeping his personal beliefs separate from his political practices, the strategist was blunt. "You have to do better than that. He'll have to answer questions under the hot lamp: What do you believe? What is the faith you believe in in relation to public policy? I don't know what the answers to those questions are, but I know those questions exist. And he'll have to answer them."

In speaking to Romney's family members and colleagues and fellow politicians over the course of several months, I felt awkward asking these questions. Mitt Romney is not Rick Santorum, who is evidently incapable of being photographed without a Bible in his hand. But after reading about how deeply committed his father was to the faith (for instance, making the decision to run for governor of Michigan only after discussing it with David O. McKay, the president of the Mormon Church, and spending twenty-four hours fasting and praying), I finally asked Romney, "How Mormon are you?"

"How Mormon am I?" he said. "You know, the principles and values taught to me by faith are values I aspire to live by and are as American as motherhood and apple pie. My faith believes in family, believes in Jesus Christ. It believes in serving one's neighbor and one's community. It believes in military service. It believes in patriotism; it actually believes this nation had an inspired founding. It is in some respects a quintessentially American faith, and those values are values I aspire to live by. And I'm not perfect, but I'm one aspiring to be a good person as defined by the biblical Judeo-Christian standards that our society would recognize."

"Do you wear the temple garments?" I asked uncomfortably, referring to the special undergarments worn by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. (The underwear has markings denoting the covenants of the Mormon faith, and is meant to serve as a reminder of the high standards Mormons are expected to uphold. The rules governing its wear and disposal seem as complex as those pertaining to, say, the American flag.)

He answered, "I'll just say those sorts of things I'll keep private."

For the moment that's the way Romney and his inner circle have kept his national ambitions: private. "Who knows?" Ann Romney said when I asked her what will happen between 2005 and 2008. Tagg Romney said he thought his father would "consider" running for president. Mitt's brother Scott said he didn't know whether Mitt would run—that there were too many factors and variables out of his control. At a press conference in late June, Mitt acknowledged that he was "testing national waters" (he subsequently accused Massachusetts of "hyperventilation" over this acknowledgment).

With me Romney wouldn't address any issue beyond the Massachusetts state line. Nothing about John Bolton. Nothing about Tom DeLay. Finally I listlessly tossed him the question. "Are you going to run for—" I started. But before I could finish, Romney began to laugh.

"You know the answer to that, of course," he said. "I'm focused on the job I've got. I like the job I've got, and it's too remote both in time and in probability to spend time thinking about at this stage."

And so for the moment Romney—like the elastic "Mr. Fantastic" he so closely resembles—will continue to stretch himself thin, keeping one leg planted in the home state where he seems to be steadily losing favor and the other in the national Republican base whose esteem for him seems only to be growing. If he can hold on in Massachusetts through the 2006 election (and maybe even if not), his reach, whatever he says or won't say now, may well turn out to extend to a 2008 presidential nomination and beyond.