, DES MOINES, Jan 4 – A cut-throat venture capitalist or a skilled manager with the business acumen to turn around the American economy? A cunning political chameleon or a flip-flopping fake with liberal leanings?
Reading the press about the former Massachusetts governor, who after winning Iowa is odds-on to become the Republican presidential nominee and do battle with Barack Obama on November 6, there could be two Mitt Romneys.
A hard-to-like figure, especially for staunch conservatives who doubt he really shares their views on hot-button issues such as gay marriage and abortion, Romney, 64, is certainly a difficult character to pin down.
Throughout a roller-coaster ride of Republican debates, rivals struggled to land telling blows on the former Boston venture capitalist who managed to stay above the fray while giving off the air of an inevitable nominee.
Texas Governor Rick Perry got up his nose during one feisty exchange by accusing him of hiring illegal workers, and Romney has constantly been on the defensive about his Mormon faith, but so far it has mostly been plain sailing.
Such has been the quiet confidence of his campaign that he did not appear to be making a big play for Iowa until final opinion polls showed him advancing, at the perfect moment, to the front of the pack.
Once bitten, twice shy perhaps as Romney had gambled big on Iowa in 2008 but lost out to Christian right darling and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a setback from which his last campaign never fully recovered.
This time around, the 64-year-old co-founder of private equity firm Bain Capital, who was credited with saving the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City from disaster, was more circumspect.
He dashed in when needed: bombarding the surging Newt Gingrich with a barrage of negative ads when it looked like the former House speaker might run away with the contest.
Romney boasts a brimming war-chest, a glut of high-profile endorsements and an organizational network that are the envy of his rivals, but he lacks one commodity that could yet be telling: solid conservative credentials.
The wealthiest candidate, with an estimated fortune of up to $250 million, he has struggled to overcome doubts dating back to when he ran as a moderate Republican to win the governorship of deeply liberal Massachusetts.
During his 2003 to 2007 tenure, Romney built a reputation as a moderate dealmaker inspiring an iron-clad, albeit Democrat-dominated, alliance that gave birth to the nation’s first universal healthcare program.
He has subsequently distanced himself from his crowning gubernatorial achievement as the program served as a model for the nationwide plan created by Obama in 2010, which most Republicans despise.
This fits seamlessly into the narrative, already being perpetuated by White House attack ads, that Romney is the king of flip-floppers, someone who will do or say anything just to get elected.
Initially “pro-choice,” Romney switched to become “pro-life” after being elected governor of Massachusetts, declaring that the debate over stem cell research had convinced him of the “sanctity of life.”
The one-time proponent of gay equality morphed into an opponent of gay rights as a presidential candidate, signing a pledge to support a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
Romney pitches himself as a successful entrepreneur with the business nous to create jobs and turn around an American economy ruined by Obama’s failing policies.
In reality he was raised in wealth and privilege, spent much of his business career in the unforgiving world of venture capital and had a questionable record as a job-creator in Massachusetts.
A black-and-white photograph of a young Romney posing with Bain Capital colleagues with dollars bulging out of their pockets has done him no favours at a time when many Americans are unemployed and struggling to make ends meet.
Romney has tried to keep religion out of the campaign, conscious that some evangelicals, a potentially crucial chunk of the electorate in Republican primaries, view his Mormon faith as heresy.
When a Texas pastor supporting Perry proclaimed Mormonism was “a cult,” Romney played down the row and called simply for greater civility.
It would appear all Romney’s sins shall be forgiven if Republicans decide he is the candidate with the best chance of beating Obama in November.