Behind Mitt Romney's bland smile, there is a steely drive and a hint of bitterness. Talking to NEWSWEEK's Howard Fineman in Florida last week, Romney complained that his GOP rivals were fighting dirty—even as he launched waves of "comparative" attack ads against John McCain. Dogged and disciplined, Romney has worked his way to the front of the pack. Now he seems to have settled on his pitch: he'll bring an investor's cold-eyed discipline to a beleaguered American economy and the "broken" city of Washington. Excerpts:
Fineman: What do you say to people who think you will say anything or be anything to get elected?
Romney: Well, first of all, let me tell you where that comes from. It comes from one of the opposition campaigns, before we even got going. They did a terrific job of salting the water with that perspective. I prefer not to mention which one, but you can probably figure it out. [It was Sen. Sam Brownback, an ardent pro-life conservative who has since endorsed McCain.] … One place of significance I did change—and I'll acknowledge that—was with regard to abortion. I was effectively pro-choice.
What can you do about that image?
I'm not a political consultant. I can't describe how you rectify the perception that people have obtained other than by letting them do what I tell people to do who ask the question: look at my record … If you want to know where I stand on gay marriage, guns and abortion, on taxation, on balancing budgets, you can look at my record as governor.
But much of your sales pitch is based on your decades in the private sector. So you are asking people to judge you on your whole adult life.
If people are looking for a candidate who, over 15 years of experience, never makes any mistakes, then I'm not that person … I would far rather have a guy who acknowledges his mistakes, and says he was wrong, than someone who consistently stands by something that was wrong and remains wrong.
And who would that be?
I'm not going to be talking, at this stage, about other folks, but there are some folks who tend to be known as being so stubborn that they won't admit when they are wrong.
John McCain said that running against you is like wrestling with a pig. You both get dirty but the pig still likes it. Why do the other candidates dislike you so much?
What Peter says to Paul tells you more about Peter than it does about Paul. I'm not going to Washington to try and make friends with politicians.
Are your relations with these people irreparable?
Not on my part. I'm not sure how they feel. I have been very careful to focus on Senator McCain and Governor Huckabee and their records. In fact, in the Senator McCain ads, I would begin by saying, Senator McCain is a man of honor, he is a national hero, but I disagree with him on these issues and describe accurately his positions and what my positions are.
Have they gotten personal in a way that you haven't?
There's no question that what has come back has been very personal.
They would probably argue that they are just cataloging your changes in positions.
That may be what they would argue, but when they don't catalog those accurately and distort what they are and try and make jokes or light of a person's character, it's very different and personal.
Where do you get whatever sense you have of how average people live their lives?
It comes from various parts of my life. One way was serving as a missionary for my church for two and a half years in France, living not just among the middle class but the poor. It gave me a great deal of perspective on people who were living close to the poverty line. And then in my community service as a lay minister of my faith and as an adviser and participant in charitable organizations, I was able to work with people who had real challenges and problems. And as a result of those experiences, most of my life I have been very close to people of a wide range of economic circumstances. The proof of the pudding is the effort I went through to get everybody health insurance.
Do you think George W. Bush has been a good economic steward?
Yes, I think George Bush has faced some extraordinary challenges that have tested his mettle. The first was a declining economy when he came in, which shortly thereafter got hit by 9/11 and the Internet bubble burst. And he was able to take swift action to get the economy to turn around … I likewise think that in the current situation, with us having been hit by the subprime-mortgage crisis spreading throughout our economy, that he has moved quickly to reach agreement with Congress to put in place a stimulus plan … Now, are there some things I would have done differently? Absolutely.
I think we overspent. I think Republicans acted like Democrats and America lost … I also think the decision to add a multitrillion-dollar Medicare Part D entitlement was not the right course.
How about looking the other way when the mortgage industry went nuts giving subprime mortgages to people who probably shouldn't have had them?
There are many places where I would have expected the whistle to be blown first. The rating agencies.
If elected, what would be your first priority?
Get the economy on track.