SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney is best known in the West as the "white knight" who galloped in to save the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics from scandal and turned the event into an international success.
In the East, he's best known as a corporate-turnaround whiz who made millions, and more recently as a popular conservative governor of liberal Massachusetts.
Now, in a society that starts speculating about the next presidential election even before the present one is decided, he's increasingly being touted as a possible presidential candidate in 2008.
At last week's Republican National Convention in New York, Mr. Romney didn't get the same exposure as John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, or George Pataki - all of whom are also potential candidates four years from now. But he did get a prime-time spot, delivering a fiery speech in support of President Bush and tweaking John Kerry as a vacillating leader who "comes in 57 varieties," a sly reference to Senator Kerry's marriage to ketchup heiress Teresa Heinz Kerry.
Good manners and political prudence dictate that all the prospects feign disinterest in the midst of Mr. Bush's reelection campaign. Romney is no exception, telling reporters that he's simply looking forward to another term as governor of Massachusetts. He'll be up for reelection in 2006, and pundits in Boston, where politics is the breath of life, say it would be a cakewalk for him. If they are right, this is remarkable, for Romney is a conservative Republican and a Mormon in a state that is liberal, Democratic, and has a significant Roman Catholic population.
Though his conservative positions on such issues as same-sex marriage have stoked Democratic ire, his record as a fiscal fixer has won acclaim from many Massachusetts citizens. He has turned a state with a history of billion-dollar deficits into one with a surplus of millions. This he has done not by raising taxes but by reorganization and reform. Thus he has replicated his track record both in the private sector and with the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
When he took over management of the Olympics, the project was deeply in debt. Wealthy in his own right and hardly in need of his $275,000 a year salary, Romney declined to collect it unless he produced a profit for the Games. He did come through with a multimillion-dollar profit, whereupon he drew the three years' salary due at the end of his assignment and donated it to charity.
Romney is photogenic, articulate, fast on his feet, and media savvy. Reporters digging, as they do, for dirt in the private and business lives of aspiring politicians have so far found him to be "Mr. Clean."
He is no stranger to politics. His father, George Romney, was the boss of American Motors before becoming governor of Michigan. Mitt Romney ran for the Senate in Massachusetts in 1994, losing to the unbeatable Ted Kennedy - but giving him a stiff race in the process. His religious background as a nondrinking, nonsmoking Mormon did not seem to impair his candidacy in that contest, and ever since the rise of the Roman Catholic Kennedys in politics, religion seems to have faded as a negative factor.
Winning the Republican nomination for president from a liberal state like Massachusetts would be a challenge. Romney could hardly expect to bring in Democratic Massachusetts for the Republican Party, but his skill in attracting support from individual Democrats as well as Republicans in that state could be cited as a factor in his cross-party appeal to a national audience.
He would also advance his reputation as a "turnaround guy" in the private sector, the Olympics, and Massachusetts government as credentials for managing the nation's economy. The book he has just written and published is titled "Turnaround." Its subtitle, "Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games," is not a bad pitch from a man who says he is eyeing another run for the governorship in 2006, but could be considering a run for the presidency in 2008. Indeed, some Boston pols are suggesting that Romney might be whisked away long before then for a cabinet post in a second-term Bush administration. With strong conservative positions such as the stand he has taken in Massachusetts on same-sex marriage, he has clearly caught the eye of the White House and has been recruited to campaign for the Bush-Cheney ticket.
Romney may not yet get the national devotion afforded Senator McCain and Mr. Giuliani, but he surely is being talked about as a contender in 2008.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.