- Associated Press - Sunday, December 25, 2011

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Mitt Romney cruises down two-lane blacktops, past combines churning up clouds of dust harvesting corn, on his way to one more gathering, one more step on a long journey.

Four years ago, he thought these farm fields would lead to the White House. Iowa, instead, turned out to be the beginning of the end. Weeks after an embarrassing loss here, his campaign folded before the snow had even melted. Mr. Romney’s now back, more casual but still cautious, making his sales pitch: In these hard times, America needs a leader who understands balance sheets and budgets.

“I love business,” the candidate says with a grin, addressing a storefront gathering of the local chamber of commerce. “I want America not to be the most regulated, taxed and burdened place in the world but the most attractive.”

This is the image that Mr. Romney wants to project: the take-charge CEO, at ease discussing trade pacts, China’s currency and ethanol subsidies. The turnaround artist who ran a state government, revived businesses that had lost their way and rescued an Olympics. The guy who simply understands money and knows how to create jobs.

But nearly two decades after his political debut, the Mitt Romney story is not that simple. As a man who has straddled the worlds of business and government, Mr. Romney has a long, sometimes puzzling record of changing positions that makes it hard to pin down who he really is.

It’s a resume opponents — on both sides of the aisle — have pounced on. Jon Huntsman Jr. calls his rival a “perfectly lubricated weather vane.” David Plouffe, the president’s campaign adviser, says if Mr. Romney “thought … it was good to say the sky was green and the grass was blue, to win an election, he’d say it.”

At 64, Mr. Romney still looks like he could model for a Brooks Brothers catalog, though he’s more J. Crew these days, wearing open-collar shirts and khakis. And other than touches of silver at the temples, he hasn’t changed much since People magazine included him on its 50 Most Beautiful list in 2002.

With a reported wealth of between $190 million and $250 million, Mr. Romney has tried to connect with average voters.

As a candidate, Mr. Romney follows a script: He casts himself as a problem-solver, lacing speeches with statistics and business terms. He quotes Ronald Reagan and uses phrases such as “gosh” and “heck.” He pledges U.S. dominance with an “American century.”

On the trail, Mr. Romney can be wooden and seemed to acknowledge his oratorical limitations when asked at a recent town hall meeting in Sioux City to identify his (and the GOP’s) biggest weakness:

“One of the things my party needs to do better, and I’m sure I need to do better as well — something I learned from my first campaign — is to make sure we communicate our message clearly,” he said. “Gosh darn it. We don’t do a good job of that.”

Then addressing himself, he added: “Come on, Mitt. Come on Republicans. Do a better job of communicating our message.”

Four years ago, Mr. Romney worked to reassure voters, especially evangelicals suspicious of Mormonism, that he was a Bible-reading Christian. He also delivered a faith-and-values speech, saying he would “not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations” of the presidency and would maintain a firm separation between them.

This time, Mr. Romney’s focus has been the economy as he trumpets his business credentials and criticizes President Obama. He’s suggested the president is an elitist who gets foreign policy advice from the “Harvard faculty lounge” — though Mr. Romney, himself, has joint law and business degrees from Harvard (and though Mr. Romney held a fundraiser this spring at New York’s Harvard Club.)

Some moderate positions Mr. Romney staked out during a failed 1994 Senate run in Massachusetts, and later when he successfully ran for governor, have given way now to more conservative views.

The onetime defender of abortion rights now believes the U.S. Supreme Court should reverse Roe v. Wade and return the issue to the states to decide on the legality.

The Senate candidate who said in 1994 he did not “line up” with the National Rifle Association signed up for a lifetime membership in the group 12 years later, as he was considering his first presidential run.

The gubernatorial candidate who said in 2002 that he opposed tax increases but would not sign a no-tax pledge signed one when running for president five years later, boasting about it and criticizing his rivals for not doing so.

To Mr. Romney, these shifts were a natural evolution. To critics, they were political expediency to fit an increasingly conservative GOP.

But Mr. Romney has a pragmatic response for those who question his changes over time:

“I’m as consistent,” he told a New Hampshire editorial board, “as human beings can be.”