The phrases "squeaky-clean" and "white knight" effervesce around him like shiny bubbles. But the man himself doesn't hesitate to get dirty.
Take, for instance, the playground-building project sponsored a few years ago by a youth-service group in Boston. As heavy machinery poured cement, Mitt Romney got knee-deep in it to guide the spigot.
For friends and business associates, the metaphor is clear: When Mr. Romney wades into a sloppy mess, it inevitably will turn into a solid foundation.
Now, Salt Lake City's Olympic organizers - their committee mired in scandal - hope this proper Bostonian can do the same for them. In giving him the helm of the local organizing committee for the 2002 Games, they are banking that he can restore public and corporate trust in the committee's business operations - and do it amid the scorching heat of the media spotlight.
It's a challenge Romney evidently feels confident of meeting. Indeed, the new chief executive officer of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee has refused to take his $280,000 annual salary before the Games end profitably.
"If there's a surplus, I'll take a salary, and I'm absolutely confident there will be," Romney said Thursday in a Monitor interview, palpably uneasy with the poshness of the SLOC's sixth-floor office overlooking the city.
It's that kind of confidence, say friends and colleagues, that defines the man. By way of illustration, they tell of the time Romney helped track down a friend's missing teenage daughter. He shut down his company for a day and recruited volunteers to go to New York, where they walked the streets looking for the girl. Romney visited some "raves" - all-night parties - to show her picture and pass out flyers. (Her parents believed she was at such a party, and she was eventually located.)
"That's who Mitt is," says Michael Brown, president of City Year, a nonprofit group promoting youth service where Romney serves on the board of directors. "When there was a crisis he didn't say, 'Let's think about this....' He just has an instinct to get in and solve a problem and to know what the right thing to do is."
The announcement that Romney will lead the troubled SLOC came two days after an internal report outlined extensive ethical violations in the city's bid process to win the winter Games. Many say his business background and strong ethical standards are what's needed to convince naysayers, including the Salt Lake City Council, that the Games will be both successful and profitable.
A graduate of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, Romney has turned around failing companies - and become a millionaire in the process. But his motivation, say close friends, is anything but money.
Romney spent nearly two years in France as a Mormon missionary before college, and has held leadership positions with Mormon congregations in the Boston area for 12 years. In addition to his involvement in service projects, he's on four national boards, including those of City Year and the Boy Scouts of America. His example for volunteerism, Romney says, was his father, the late George Romney, former governor of Michigan.
COMING from Boston, where he has lived since studying business and law at Harvard University nearly 30 years ago, Romney brings "lots of expertise, but no baggage" to the SLOC, says Jeff Rehnert, who has worked with him at Bain Capital Inc. since its inception in 1984.
Romney's current connections to Utah are mainly through Brigham Young University, where all of his five sons have either earned degrees or will be attending this fall. The family has long vacationed in the resort area of Park City, but for the next three years Romney will live in Utah.
For the SLOC, Romney's leadership style has already helped shape an image of an organization with purpose. After he addressed the SLOC's board of trustees Thursday, four members with business interests that could profit from the Games resigned.
"There's no shame in conflict of interest," Romney says. "In a state as small as this preparing for such a large event, there are lots of conflicts. But you have to have guidelines that preserve the public trust."
Before Romney came on board, Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt (R) was lobbying to restructure the SLOC's board of trustees. It has been expanded to 50 members, but a newly created management committee of 20 holds the only voting power.
Romney says he'll create an ethics office to review conflicts and develop a code of ethics for the staff. He will also examine his own holdings, and may resign from boards like that of the Sports Authority. Moreover, the SLOC board, which has consistently called itself a private institution, has agreed to abide by standards for public institutions by opening meetings and records.
"Scrutiny of the Olympic Games is appropriately close, and one has to abide by the highest standards," Romney says.
Morale in Utah will also have to withstand the coming waves of investigations still under way, including one by the US Justice Department. In what most see as a wise move to reinforce sagging public support, Romney included the City Council chairman on his new management committee.
In another often-cited story of his leadership prowess, Romney is credited with saving Bain & Co., a consulting firm that lawyers said had a 95 percent chance of going bankrupt. He had once worked at the company (which is not connected to his current business, Bain Capital), and agreed to step in if he got complete authority to make changes. He was and he did, within about a year, says Mr. Rehnert.
Many people point to Romney's 1994 "David and Goliath" campaign against Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts as an example of his ability to thrive as an underdog.
"Even when, at the end,... the handwriting was on the wall ... he exuded the confidence among his staff and supporters like he was a front-runner 20 points ahead," says Brian Cresta, chairman of the Republican Party in Massachusetts. (Romney insists he won't use his position with the SLOC as a springboard back into politics.)
"He's an inspired leader," says City Year's Mr. Brown. "He has the ability to make [people] want to do things that are larger than themselves."