In Olympics Success, Romney Found New Edge
SALT LAKE CITY Mitt Romney walked onto the Olympic stage in 1999 a rich businessman still smarting from losing his first bid for public office. He walked off, three years later, a star-polished candidate who would be elected governor of Massachusetts in a matter of months. This was the place of his emergence and his transition.
The Long RunStarting Over
This is part of a series of articles about the lives and careers of contenders for the 2008 Republican and Democratic presidential nominations.
In rescuing the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, which had been tarnished by scandal, Mr. Romney learned the ways of Washington and the hurly-burly of politics, mastered the news media, built a staff of loyalists and made fund-raising connections in Utah that have proven vital to his presidential campaign.
"The Olympics gave him a public persona he didn't have before," said Robert H. Garff, a businessman who served as the chairman of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. "He grew into the person he is today."
But the hardheaded and hard-nosed pragmatism that allowed Mr. Romney to juggle an unruly coalition of politicians, sponsors and volunteers as chief executive of the Games now haunts him on the campaign trail among some conservative Republicans. They complain that he has no core beliefs and shifts positions on a range of issues to placate various constituencies.
As a Republican presidential hopeful, for example, Mr. Romney portrays himself as a budget hawk who would take a hard line on federal spending and Congressional earmarks, the pet projects that lawmakers insert in spending bills. Back then, though, he lobbied heavily for earmarks, helping extract millions of federal dollars for projects in some cases only loosely tied to the Olympics and drawing the ire of Senator John McCain of Arizona, a longtime critic of earmarks and now a rival for the Republican presidential nomination.
While even Mr. Romney's critics concede that the Games which had faced serious potential
financial difficulties before his arrival were a huge success, some say he made those early problems seem worse than they were to embellish his accomplishments. Others grouse about his showman's instinct for the spotlight: the countless photo-ops, the television spots. Even the little Olympic pins sold to collectors carried his image, cloaked in the American flag.
Ever calibrating his pitch, Mr. Romney scored big sponsors (including the Games "first official cake mix" and "Olympic meat") and sidelined critics (sometimes by just inviting them in to air their grievances). He paid attention to virtually every detail, including the scripts for board presentations and the traffic once jumping from his car to unsnarl jammed vehicles en route to a ski event.
It was clear then to many in Utah that Mr. Romney was probably aiming for bigger things. "It was obvious that he had an agenda larger than just the Olympics," Mr. Garff said.
In a recent interview, Mr. Romney said the Games had prepared him for the complexity of public life.
"I never saw a more difficult turnaround situation than the one at the Olympics," he said. "And the team, not just me, but a remarkable team of public leaders and Olympic leaders pulled off something which was a massive undertaking and which had a crisis written all over it."
Asked how he put together the effort, Mr. Romney checked off his list: hire the right people, motivate them, make decisions on the basis of analysis and debate, set bench marks to measure success.
"He always has an objective in mind and a goal that he works toward," said Randy L. Dryer, a lawyer and a former member of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee who worked closely with Mr. Romney and described himself as a Democrat, but also an admirer of Mr. Romney's. "But he's not unwilling to modify that objective if it's an uphill battle and not worth the fight to get there he is not bullheaded."
Challenge After Defeat
After his failed bid for the Senate seat held by Edward M. Kennedy in 1994, Mr. Romney grew restless. The loss "felt worse than we had imagined," he wrote in his book, "Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership and the Olympic Games" (Regnery, 2004). He had also recently bought a ski house in Park City, Utah, and the idea of simply making more and more money, he said in his book, was losing its appeal. So he quickly jumped at the chance to lead the Organizing Committee, which was trying to recover from the taint of scandal, and just as quickly formulated a strategy.
Beginning in late 1998, articles had begun to pile up about hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts bestowed on members of the International Olympic Committee by some of those involved in Utah's bid for the Games. As resignations, investigations and tales of greed filled the headlines, some politicians and business leaders even suggested that Utah should abandon the effort to be host of the Games.
"I knew that the first thing I needed to do was to draw a clear, bright, heavy line between what had happened before and what was going to happen in the future," Mr. Romney wrote in his book. "No one likes joining a loser, but they like rooting for, and helping, a comeback kid."
Rodrigo González Fernández
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