WASHINGTON — When Mitt Romney was 14, Dwight D. Eisenhower came to his family's house for dinner.
Ike had just finished his eight years as president — it was around 1961 — and he came because he knew Mitt's father, George, then the chairman of the American Motors Corp.
The teenager listened to the older men swap tales of World War II; he recalled how they talked about "the invasion," as well as American politics. Years later, Romney reflected on that dinner as he tried to explain during an interview why he thinks he's ready to sit in the Oval Office.
"I saw that (presidents) were not Supermen who could leap tall buildings in a single bound," he said. "They were ordinary people with, in some cases, extraordinary talent."
His talent, he said, is an ability to bring people together to solve problems. "Ronald Reagan didn't have all the answers to all the problems," said Romney, "but he knew how to motivate people and change a nation."
Romney's friends say that his strength is as a problem-solver, someone with a knack for bringing people together and staying unrattled by pressure.
He created a thriving venture capital firm in the 1980s. It invested in well-known companies and became wildly successful. He later was credited with saving the scandal-plagued 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
But being a good manager doesn't automatically mean that there's a political leader behind the glittering resume.
Massachusetts AFL-CIO legislative director Tim Sullivan brands Romney a "vulture capitalist." Others who've dealt with him are eager to join the critics' chorus. In some ways, they say, the title of Romney's 2004 autobiography says it all, good and bad. The title: "Turnaround."
In his book, Romney describes his family as an "adventurous breed." He tells how his great-great grandfather Miles left England in 1837 when Mormon missionaries convinced him that "God had been restored to the earth by a young prophet..."
Miles Romney's family eventually trekked to Utah and began a tradition of what Mitt called "a loyalty (to the church)_ based on sanity and not on fanaticism."
The Romney family settled in Michigan, where Mitt's father George became a corporate star of the post-World War II era, the man who rocketed American Motors to fame in the 1950s when he helped created the popular Rambler; at one point it muscled its way to the third best selling car in America. By the 1960s, he'd become the state's governor and, briefly, a 1968 presidential candidate.
Mitt Romney adored his father.
"Work was never just a way to make a buck to my dad," he wrote. "There was a calling and purpose to it. It was about making life better for people."
But making money and having a comfortable life weren't ignored. The Romneys lived well.
Romney met Ann Davies in high school; on their first date he picked her up in an American Motors Marlin and they saw "The Sound of Music." They've been married for 38 years and have five sons.
Romney attended Stanford University for two quarters, then went to France as a Mormon missionary for two and a half years. He then enrolled at Brigham Young University, graduated in 1971 and got an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.
He joined Bain & Co., a Boston-based management consulting firm, in the late 1970s. By the mid-1980s he left to start Bain Capital, a spinoff venture capital firm whose successful investments included Staples, which grew into a mega-chain after Bain got involved.
But like his father, Romney got the political itch.
In 1994, he challenged Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts. The race was never close; Kennedy was seeking a sixth full term, and the contest was largely a referendum on his tenure.
But Romney did better than expected, winning 41 percent of the vote, the best showing against Kennedy since 1962. Romney began to attract interest from important Massachusetts constituencies.
Gay rights activists were pleased when he wrote the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay GOP loyalists, in October 1994 that the military's new "don't ask, don't tell" policy was "the first in a number of steps that will ultimately lead to gays and lesbians being able to serve openly and honestly in our nation's military."
He told voters that "abortion should be safe and legal in this country. ...I sustain and support that law (Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court abortion rights case) and the right of a woman to make that choice."
He returned to Bain, but when the call came from Kem Gardner, a close friend active in Utah affairs, in 1998 to help rescue the Salt Lake City Olympics, Romney realized what an opportunity it could be.
He still had the political bug and wrote how "I couldn't help wondering if it (the Olympic job) was the doorway I had been looking for..."
Romney confronted what seemed like an impossible predicament. The organizing committee had been rocked by reports of cash payments to international and Salt Lake City Olympic officials. Organizers were talking about scaling back the budget for the games if the controversy dried up fundraising.
Romney went to work, persuading corporations to continue supporting the games and dramatically cutting the budget, while earning a reputation as a charming turnaround artist.
Republicans in Massachusetts noticed. Incumbent Gov. Jane M. Swift, a Republican, was sinking in the early 2002 polls; in March, after lambasting Romney as a carpetbagger who thinks that "Taco Bell is the local telephone company," she withdrew from the race.
Within hours, Romney, encouraged by local political and business leaders, was in. He portrayed himself as a problem-solver who could rise above partisanship.
"We specifically asked if he'd support efforts to increase access to emergency contraception," recalled Nicole Roos, the chair of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts' political committee. "The answer was yes."
However, in 2005, he vetoed legislation expanding access to emergency contraception, saying that such practices sometimes cause abortions.
He also convinced gay rights activists that he was squarely on their side. Shortly before the election, about two dozen Log Cabin Republicans met with Romney at a Boston restaurant, and he gave every indication that he favored civil unions.
"He looked me in the eye and said, 'Call it civil unions, call it what you want, just don't call it marriage,''' recalled Richard Babson, a Log Cabin member who was present at the meeting.
By early 2006, though, these groups were seeing a very different Romney. As he prepared to run for president, he came to Washington and had lunch with about 40 members of the national media. He was, as he put it, now "firmly pro-life."
"I'm in a different place than I was 12 years ago," he said. "Twelve years ago I refused to take any label."
He never supported abortion, he explained, but had said he wouldn't seek to change the law. And as he continued to study the issue, he found, "I got more involved in when human life began."
So does Mitt Romney have a political soul, or is he a corporate fixer with no fixed principles?
Supporters point to his ability to shepherd through the heavily Democratic Massachusetts legislature a landmark 2006 plan to require all residents to get mandatory health insurance. The plan is widely hailed as his signature achievement in office. Add it to his accomplishments with the Olympics and as a businessman, and many see him as uniquely qualified to clean up Washington messes.
When Romney was first considering running for president last year, Mark Sykas, a Stratham, N. H., data processing consultant, went to Romney's Wolfeboro, N.H., home with a small group of potential supporters.
"His answers inspired me," Sykas said. They talked about the challenges of reviving the Olympics as the country reeled from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "He was able to bring people together and solve the problem."
But Randy Johnson watched Bain Capital helped another firm buy a Marion, Ind., office supply plant 13 years ago, fire employees and force them to reapply for their jobs at lower pay. It cut the workforce by about 25 percent, and within a few months, the plant closed.
Johnson, a local union official at the time, tried to get answers from Romney, who was campaigning against Kennedy then and boasting about the importance of creating jobs.
Romney met with a group of workers and was back at Bain Capital when the plant was shut. In a recent interview, he stressed that he never ran the company. The plant, he said, "was bought after I left Bain Capital."
But critics see a pattern: Romney does what he thinks will please the constituency he needs to get his latest job done, then moves on.
"Where exactly is he coming from?" asks Babson, the Log Cabin Republican.
Romney argues that there's nothing wrong with someone changing his positions over time; everyone does it, he says.
"When the time comes when I'm the nominee, I'll be able to go head to head with the person on the other side and say, 'OK, let's look at your list of how many places you changed your mind.'"
Then he uses that word again.
"I had consulting experience and actually led that firm through a turnaround," Romney says. "I led the Olympics and turned that around."
Round and round Romney goes, and Babson wonders what it all means.
"Was he lying to me the first time," he asks, "or is he lying to me now?"