Is Mitt Romney Ready for Prime-Time Politics?

Mitt Romney seemed to be on a roll. His campaign had just reported that it had raised over $20 million, more than either Rudy Giuliani ($15 million) or John McCain ($12.5 million). Romney was starting to move in the polls, and on the campaign trail he seemed loose, even funny. Eager to prove his bona fides as a conservative at a stop in rural New Hampshire, he talked about struggling to kill a rabbit with a single-shot .22-caliber rifle and joked that it got easier when someone loaned him a semiautomatic. The gun-loving crowd laughed appreciatively. Feeling expansive, Romney declared that he had been "a hunter pretty much all my life."

The next day, his campaign acknowledged that Romney had been hunting only twice: as a 15-year-old visiting a relative's ranch in Idaho and last year at a Georgia quail shoot with major donors to the Republican Governors Association. Romney tried to explain that he had not been a "big game" hunter but rather shot at varmints and smaller game, and his campaign spokesman insisted that the real point was that Romney strongly backed the constitutional rights of gun owners. But the explanations sounded stiff and lame—one more example of Romney's trying to pander to true-blue conservatives and getting called out for it. Romney has tried to sell himself as a "turnaround" artist who can use his skills as a businessman to come in and clean up the mess created by the current administration.

But he doesn't seem quite ready for prime-time politics, and his stumbles raise a familiar question: can a big shot from the private sector, accustomed to control, handle the chaos of a political campaign? And can a high roller in the secretive world of finance stand the exposure of public life? The historical record is mixed: for every Michael Bloomberg, the media mogul turned über-competent mayor of New York, there has been at least one Dick Cheney, who seems to think that the iron-fist approach mastered at a big corporation like Halliburton can be just as effective in the vice president's office. Romney might have learned from the mistakes of his father, George, who was a huge success as a car manufacturer, but committed the unpardonable gaffe of speaking his inner mind as a presidential candidate (in 1967, the senior Romney allowed that he had had a "brainwashing" on a visit to U.S. Army headquarters in Vietnam). Romney's spokesman says the former governor "believes that government bureaucracy can and should learn the best practices of management." But so far, Romney himself hasn't quite figured out how to integrate the two.

As a businessman, Romney's leadership style compares favorably to two of the greatest American presidents. In the 1980s and '90s, Romney most likely made hundreds of millions, first as a high-powered business consultant at Bain & Co. and then as a shrewd investor with the firm's offshoot, Bain Capital. In the executive suite, Romney was a team-builder. He sat at the middle of the table, not at the head, and used a Socratic style of questioning to provoke debate. "Even though he was running it, he gave us all the impression that we had an equal voice at the table," says former Bain & Co. partner Bill Achtmeyer. Playing Devil's advocate and encouraging strong and sometimes contrary opinions, Romney operated like Abraham Lincoln, who surrounded himself with better-educated, more-experienced cabinet officers. Lincoln trusted that "his own thinking would be sharpened continually," says Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of "Team of Rivals," a 2005 biography of Lincoln. If Romney adopts that style in the White House, he will stand in stark contrast to George W. Bush, who has been widely criticized for living inside a bubble of true believers.

But some colleagues found Romney to be manipulative. Romney had an "ability to identify people's insecurities and exploit them to his own benefit," says a source who worked with Romney but refused to be quoted for "fear of retribution." This source says that Romney would vary bonuses among his partners just enough to put people on edge, giving $3.1 million to one, $3 million to another and $2.9 million to another. This approach strikes Goodwin as more akin to Franklin Roosevelt than to Lincoln. FDR liked to pit his cabinet members against each other, she says, sometimes giving them the same assignment. "It made contention within his cabinet but he thought it was the best way to get a certain vitality and energy with his people."

At all times, Romney liked to show who was in charge. Dana Callow, a partner of another firm who worked with Romney on business deals, recalls Romney's arriving at meetings: he would "go into the room with his hair flowing, all of his people very well dressed, and he'd sweep through the room, touch who he needed to touch and then move on. It created power." Romney liked to play the white knight riding to the rescue. When Bain & Co. seemed to be teetering in 1990, Romney came back from Bain Capital to take charge and quickly turned around the foundering consulting company. He also took over the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, which had been plagued by charges of corruption and profligacy, and made it a lean, pristine moneymaker.

Romney can be inspirational. Tom Stemberg, the founder of Staples, remembers calling on Romney, the chief investor in Stemberg's start-up office-supply company, on the eve of its opening in 1986. "I said, 'Mitt, people are dead. Would you do me a favor and give a little rah-rah to the troops?'" Romney arrived with pizza and a rousing speech. "People had tears in their eyes," says Stemberg, whose company went on to make billions. By the same token, Romney is a smooth and sometimes rousing speaker on the campaign stump.

But he seems to lack good fingertips for the subtleties of politics. As governor of Massachusetts, he bridled at the implicit quid pro quos that are business as usual in the state legislature. In 2003, early in his term, he crossed the powerful then House speaker, Thomas Finneran. Romney wanted more authority to cut the state budget; Finneran wanted to create new committees. Romney got what he wanted, but when the Boston press sniffed out the makings of a deal, Romney backed away. In an interview with The Boston Globe at the end of the year, Romney suggested that he missed life back in the business world. "I'm used to a setting where people shake hands, where they write it down, where they describe all the key terms. They," he said, referring to the state legislators, "may not find that standard practice, but I'm going to adhere to the practice where we are very explicit about our understanding."

Romney's virtuous declaration may have cheered the suburban voters who elected him to rise above the hacks and pols on Beacon Hill. But after some early successes, Romney had a hard time getting much done with the legislature. A kind of petty righteousness undermined him further. When the Democrats wanted to name a Big Dig tunnel in Boston after former Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, instead of adopting Romney's proposed name—"the Liberty Tunnel"—the governor's spokesman implied the Democrats weren't sufficiently patriotic. By 2005, Romney seemed to lose interest in trying to govern Massachusetts, and began to turn his sights toward running for president.

The Romney 2008 campaign has been very methodical. His fund-raising machine is a marvel; in just one day last January, he raised $6.5 million, almost just to show that he could. But his base is narrow—mostly wealthy Mormons and Wall Streeters. And fund-raising alone does not mean much if the candidate lacks a common touch. Former Texas governor John Connally led the way in raising money for the GOP in 1980, and former Texas senator Phil Gramm won the money primary in 1996. But between them, they secured all of three delegates. Romney has carefully positioned himself with the Republican right, changing or hardening his positions against gay rights and abortion. But his campaign seemed surprised and flummoxed when it was first accused of flip-flopping by the bloggers and mainstream press.

One of the most important qualities in any president is nimbleness—the ability to react quickly and flexibly to any number of crises that pop up routinely in and around the Oval Office. Romney's former colleagues at Bain say that dealmakers often have to move quickly with unclear or incomplete data. Romney knows when to hold 'em—often his smartest move was not buying into a particular company, saving Bain from backing losers in a plunging market. But he has yet to master the skills of, say, Bill Clinton, at rounding off corners as he repositions himself in the political world. Fortunately for Romney, he has money and time to learn from his mistakes. In business, turnarounds are matters of dollars and cents. In politics, they are all about character.