Mitt Romney asked it hundreds of times: "Are you honest in your dealings with your fellow men?" • A Mormon leader during the 1980s and early '90s, he posed the question to congregants wanting to enter one of the church's sacred temples. Romney was a rising businessman in Boston but poured himself into his faith and community.
He also liked to have fun. During a church meeting one Saturday, Philip Barlow, a student at Harvard Divinity School, watched in amazement as Romney sang Billie Jean and performed "a very credible, smooth moonwalk."
So impressed with Romney's leadership and personality, Barlow wrote his mother to say he could one day be president.
As Romney stands at the edge of fulfilling a prophecy, the question he asked of others looms over his prospects for success.
He is a paradox, a devout and generous family man but also a calculating politician who has shifted positions with blinding ease. The private Romney is said to be warm and giving, while the campaign Romney is shellacked, stiff and detached.
The question for voters: Who is the authentic Willard Mitt Romney?
Out of apparent fear over perceptions of his religion and wealth, Romney, 65, has buried some of his most positive attributes, offering a one-dimensional character whose attempts at humanizing himself seem limited to tweets of eating at Subway or doing the laundry, or telling workers in Tampa that, like them, he is unemployed.
"I don't recognize the political guy out there," said Tony Kimball, who served as an executive secretary while Romney led the Mormon congregation. "I think the political persona is very unfamiliar to him, something possibly that he's uncomfortable with, which is why some people think he's stiff and insincere. He approaches it kind of like a role he has to play."
The Romney puzzle is not easily explained. The expedient answer — that he'll do and say whatever it takes to win — is overly simple, friends say. Romney has been shaped by his upbringing, the experience of his three-time Michigan governor father, his religion and a business career built on data crunching, analysis and pragmatism.
"There's a kind of elegance or formality even when he's telling a goofy joke. It's just who he is," said Barlow. "If people want him to get more mud on his boots like his father had so he can appear more authentic, it would be asking him to be less authentic."
Next week when the Republican National Convention begins in Tampa, Romney has the opportunity to show a more personal side. It could be critical.
This election is about the economy and the role of government, but voters also make decisions on trust and likability. Romney has one of the lowest popularity ratings of a presidential nominee in decades. Despite everything going wrong for President Barack Obama, polls show the public thinks he is more empathetic.
The campaign says Romney will use the convention to highlight his family. Romney has been married to his wife, Ann, for 43 years, and she has been a force on the campaign, charming and relaxed.
She has often tried to convey a warmer side, describing Romney as a lovable prankster. If he seems too robotic, she joked with a radio interviewer in April, "We better unzip him and let the real Mitt Romney out because he is not!" The couple has raised five successful, well-mannered sons who collectively have 18 children.
"He's almost too good-looking. He's almost too polished," said Brian Ballard, a Florida fundraiser for Romney who supported Romney rival John McCain in 2008. Ballard said he wanted to believe the caricature of Romney but being around him revealed a different person. "There's plenty of time for him to show what he's made of."
Romney's business career has become an endless source of negative attacks by Obama's campaign and he doesn't talk about it much, even though it is his chief credential as a turnaround specialist. The work also holds stories of generosity and warmth.
When the daughter of a co-worker disappeared in New York City, Romney marshalled his Bain Capital employees to fan out across the city. Bain owned a stake in the drugstores Duane Reade and put fliers in customers' bags. The girl was eventually found.
"It would have been easy to say, 'We hope things go well and we'll keep her in our prayers,' " said Bob White, a longtime friend. "But he felt he needed to do something. He steps forward in situations where he believes he can make a difference. I think that's the reason why he's running for president."
Similarly, Romney has avoided talking about his faith, burned by the experience of 2008 when evangelical voters in Iowa used it against him, though he was also overshadowed by a more authentic seeming Mike Huckabee.
The political calculation gnaws at his friends, Mormons and otherwise, who say his faith holds stories of dedication to community.
A Mormon leader, Romney counseled hundreds of teens and made a point in Boston of never missing the Tuesday night sessions, even if it meant taking a red eye from a business trip out west. In 2010, Romney gave nearly $3 million to charity, half to the Mormon church.
Some acts were barely noticeable; once when a storm ripped through the area, Romney organized a crew to fix a damaged home. Friends say Romney has never touted his deeds but is hurting himself.
"Of course, there's a commitment to Mormon theology but the involvement in the church on a day-to-day basis is fundamentally what I'll simply call Christian service," said Grant Bennett of Belmont, Mass., who has known Romney for more than 30 years.
"I think Mitt has analyzed the election and concluded the primary issues relate to economy and jobs," Bennett added. "It's not surprising to me he is doggedly staying on cue. But we ultimately elect a human being. It's sad because Mitt Romney is a much warmer, much more wonderful human being than the public perception."
Romney was born into comfort, the spoils of his father's rags-to-riches tale. As the '60s counterculture began to bubble up, Romney was tucked away at a prestigious prep school. During the height of unrest over Vietnam, he served as a Mormon missionary in France.
He idolized his father, an assertive figure who grew up poor, built a career in the car industry, then entered politics as a moderate Republican. George Romney was warm and engaging. He spoke his mind and took clear stands.
During the 1964 Republican National Convention he led his son, then 17, out in protest after the party refused to adopt civil rights initiatives in its platform. His 1968 presidential hopes were doomed when he said he no longer supported the war, saying he had been "brainwashed" by military leaders in Vietnam.
"His dad probably lost the election because he was too authentic. What you saw is what you got," Ronald B. Scott, author of Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics, said in an interview.
"Mitt is naturally a diplomat, but I think that made him more so," Romney's sister, Jane, told Boston Globe reporters who wrote a biography of the candidate. "He's not going to put himself out on a limb. He's more cautious, more scripted."
Like his dad, Mitt Romney began as a moderate. In his failed 1994 U.S. Senate race against Ted Kennedy, he declared, "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country." More than a decade later, as he felt the contours of a presidential run, Romney's views changed.
His flip-flops would become legend. Romney, who served four years as Massachusetts governor, flipped on a no-tax pledge (from no to yes) and on support for Ronald Reagan's policies (no to yes) and whether gays should serve in the military (yes to no). He shifted on whether humans contribute to global warning and dropped support of gun laws.
Romney passed universal health care in Massachusetts, a landmark achievement that shows he can govern, but does not talk about it because he is campaigning against the federal version his law inspired.
"All politicians have to deal with the tension of what may be their own personal feeling and the sentiment of people they represent," said Ray Hammond, pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Boston, who is friends with Romney. "The problem is, of course, you can end up saying one thing in one situation and in another something different. At what point are you really reflecting your changed positions, or are you trying to appeal to a demographic?"
"All politicians are eager to win, but you mask it behind, 'I want to help the people, I want to give back,' those kinds of answers," said Fred Davis, a Republican strategist. "I don't think Mitt bothers with that. He's looked a little too eager to get the job."
But Davis thinks the campaign should resist trying to turn Romney into something he is not. "He has impeccable character, impeccable intellect. But he's not the boy next door."
A truer picture
Scott Ferson, a Democratic consultant in Boston who got to know Romney in the 1994 Senate race, thinks Romney's business career has fueled a means-to-an-end approach to politics. "But I think it reflects poorly on his basic qualities. Someone who will rationalize anything to get where they want to be I'm not sure is the correct quality for a president.
"As a liberal Democrat," Ferson added, "I don't believe he's going to do the things that he says he's going to do."
Some conservatives share that view, seeing Romney's transformation as evidence of phoniness, and it's why he struggled through the primaries. Their fears seemed to be reinforced this spring when Romney was close to clinching the nomination and his spokesman implied he could pivot from harder line positions and appeal to a broader audience — comparing the reset to shaking up an Etch-a-Sketch.
At the Republican National Convention next week, Romney may need to shake it up again and show a truer picture of himself.
"He's a man who sincerely cares about people, who cares about the larger community. He cares about his family," said Hammond, the Boston preacher. Right now, he added, "It doesn't feel like the Mitt Romney I know."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.