By HELEN O'NEILL, Associated Press
Long before Mitt Romney became the millionaire candidate from Massachusetts, he was his father's son, weeding the garden in the upscale suburb of Detroit where he grew up. He hated the chore. But he idolized the man who made him do it — George Romney, the outspoken, no-nonsense, auto executive turned politician.
Romney shares an uncanny physical resemblance to his father, with the same graying temples and square jaw. And their lives have followed strikingly similar paths. As young men, both spent time abroad as Mormon missionaries and then passionately pursued the women they would marry. Both were successful businessmen who made personal fortunes before moving into politics. Both were church leaders, governors and aspiring presidential candidates.
Romney frequently invokes the memory of his father on the campaign trail. Photographs of George Romney adorn his campaign bus and headquarters in Boston.
"If people understood that equation of George Romney and his impact on my life and on Mitt's life, they wouldn't be so curious about why Mitt is running for president," Romney's wife, Ann, said in 2007, when her husband first sought the presidency. "He is why Mitt is running."
The biggest difference between father and son? Personality.
George Romney was a garrulous, engaging, shoot-from-the-hip politician who stuck to his principles and said what he believed — to his political peril. With his 17-year-old son by his side, he stalked out of the 1964 Republican convention after trying unsuccessfully to promote a plank in the party platform denouncing extremism. In 1967, he was drummed out of presidential politics after saying he had been "brainwashed" by American generals into supporting the Vietnam War while touring Southeast Asia two years earlier.
Romney's candidacy — he was then a leading contender for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination — never recovered.
His son never forgot.
"It did tell me you have to be very, very careful in your choice of words," he said in 2005. "The careful selection of words is something I'm more attuned to because Dad fell into that quagmire."
Critics say the father who railed against conservative extremism would hardly recognize the son's accommodations to those on the right. Or his complete reversal on key issues — abortion, gun control, tax pledges and gay rights — that leave even some supporters scratching their heads about Romney's core beliefs.
"Multiple Choice Mitt," Edward M. Kennedy famously dubbed Romney during their 1994 U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, a charge that still echoes.
Romney doesn't attempt to explain the changes, other than to say he has "evolved" on issues.
"I'm as consistent as human beings can be," he told a New Hampshire editorial board last year.
Speaking to the NAACP in July, Mitt Romney said blacks would vote for him if they "understood who I truly am in my heart." That's a dubious assertion — his opponent is Barack Obama, after all — but it does raise the question: What is in Mitt Romney's heart?
Friends and family testify to his fine impulses, but those who do not know him well must see past his stiff, sometimes painstakingly scripted responses. They must look for patterns in his political zigzags, and try to account for his extraordinary ambition. Unavailable and unrevealing, the candidate is far from an open book.
But some of the influences that helped make Romney the man he is are apparent. His father, for one. And the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which, for believers, is considered as much a way of life as it is a religion. Romney, who rarely talks about his faith in public, grew up steeped in the Mormon tradition, which emphasizes family, service, industriousness, tenaciousness and humility.
There is no paid hierarchy in the Mormon faith and male church members serve as lay leaders. Romney spent about 14 years as a bishop and stake president, an ecclesiastical leader who oversaw a dozen congregations and thousands of worshippers in New England. Though he had a demanding business career and was raising five boys, Romney devoted up to 25 hours a week to church duties — giving sermons, visiting the sick and counseling members about everything from work to marriage. He once described himself as a "true-blue through and through" believer, though he has taken pains to declare that the teachings of the church would not influence his obligations as president.