Will Moderate Mitt prevail where Moderate George failed?

October 10, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

Much like his father George Romney did, Mitt Romney is pursuing a controversial path to the middle. Will voters buy it?

By Tory Newmyer

george-romney-mitt-romney

George Romney, left, and Mitt Romney: Two men in the middle?

FORTUNE -- In scoring a decisive win in the first debate last week, and in the days since, Mitt Romney is presenting himself as a new man. Gone is the self-described severe conservative who'd labored on the national stage since 2007 to earn the trust of a skeptical Republican base. Romney is now offering himself -- in style, if not entirely in substance -- as a pragmatic moderate, a profile he honed as a Republican governor behind enemy lines in deep-blue Massachusetts.

Moderate Mitt comes by those stripes hereditarily. But where his father, the late Michigan Governor George Romney, was so bullheaded in pursuit of that agenda that he marginalized himself politically, Mitt has advanced by accommodation, to the point where it's not clear how he'd govern.

George cornered the moderate brand a generation ago. At Michigan's helm in the 1960s, he emerged as the bannerman for the establishment wing of a party battling a rising tide of extremism. The current Republican standard-bearer has made no secret of his hero-worship of his father, and the point was driven home in poignant fashion before last week's debate.

In a taped interview with CNN, Ann Romney revealed her husband's routine: After taking the stage, he removes his watch and places it on the podium, then writes "Dad" on a piece of paper. (Mitt appeared to hew to it at the University of Denver on Wednesday).

As Ann Romney explained, her voice catching, her husband performs the ritual because "he loves his dad, respects his dad, doesn't want to do anything that would not make his father proud." George Romney's own White House aspirations collapsed in 1967, before the primary balloting that would confer the nomination of Richard Nixon had even begun.

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And while the prototype of the pol driven by a need to exorcise his father's shortcomings is by now a familiar one in our public life, in light of Romney's latest pivot, his particular version of the psychodrama deserves revisiting. Indeed, for a candidate who conjures his father's ghost so actively, Romney seems to have inferred more about what not to do from his forebear's example.

Writing in New York magazine this spring, Benjamin Wallace-Wells chronicled one of Mitt Romney's first formative experiences in politics: as a 17-year-old, following his father out of the 1964 Republican convention after the party rejected his proposed platform plank denouncing extremism. It was the start of a losing fight George Romney would wage for the better part of the next decade. In Michigan, he drove through the state's first income tax, over the objections of conservatives. And he was a forceful advocate for civil rights, pushing to end discriminatory housing policies, among other changes, against intense opposition. His ill-fated 1968 presidential campaign included a 17-city tour of blighted American inner cities that had him meet, at one point, with Saul Alinksy. A former aide described him as "messianic" in pursuit of what he viewed as the moral cause.

I spent part of my weekend reading through George Romney's FBI file. It's not exactly riveting stuff, considering Romney père shared his son's penchant for squeaky-clean living, and there are only a handful of glancing references to Mitt himself. Much of it is devoted to the background check that the Nixon administration ordered before appointing George to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The White House appeared concerned with confirming that Romney held progressive views on race relations, in spite of his prominent membership in the Mormon Church, which had yet to undergo the 1978 reforms lifting black members from second-class status.

Anyone familiar with Romney's public record in Michigan would be hard-pressed to suggest he was in any way otherwise. But what comes through again and again in the investigation is how impressed Romney's contemporaries were with his leadership on this front -- and what it revealed about a political philosophy etched in high relief and devoted to matching the tools of government with the spirit of personal initiative to advance social good. "Romney [is] a strong believer in individually owned housing, obtained through a worker's own efforts, along with aid from government," one report reads.

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At a time when the world seemed to be coming undone -- for a week in 1967, during Romney's governorship, violent riots consumed Detroit, setting eight square miles of the city ablaze and claiming 43 lives -- an unnamed religious leader quoted in the file said George Romney was devoted to "law and justice, as contrasted with law and order."

That's a theme Wallace-Wells also found the elder Romney struggling with at the time. At one point, in 1966, the Michigan governor scribbled in his notes, "A great issue of our time: Does the urgent need to correct social injustice justify disobedience to law?" -- then proceeded for eight pages to try to answer his own query with references to Camus, Martin Luther King, Jr., Socrates, and Abraham Lincoln.

George Romney carried his activist inclination to HUD, where he tried to use federal housing subsidies and zoning-law reforms to desegregate white suburbs. The backlash compelled Nixon to mothball the effort, and a deflated Romney returned to Michigan after stepping down from the post skeptical of government's ability to affect change.

Mitt, we know, has worked to internalize the lessons of his father's career. He scrapped the audacity -- on health care reform, embryonic stem cell research, and climate change -- that defined his early governorship in favor of a studied cautiousness as he set his sights on the White House. And before his first bid in 2008, he tasked his campaign staff with reading a study one of George's aides made of the 1968 run's failures to ensure his own candidacy 40 years later didn't repeat them. The most glaring was certainly George Romney's statement on a Detroit television show explaining how he came to oppose the Vietnam War after recognizing his support had been based on swallowing propaganda from military and diplomatic brass: "I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get," he said. It was a gaffe of monstrous proportions, compounded by his subsequent refusal to disown it even as other Republicans piled on.

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Compare that to his son's handling of his own most self-destructive moment -- his infamous 47% comments. After initially doubling down, Romney has now categorically disavowed them.

The new tack appears to have the Obama campaign off-balance for the first time in the race, scrambling to swap its organizing critique of Romney as too far right for one that assails him as a flip-flopper. And to wit, Romney presented himself last Wednesday in terms unfamiliar to close observers of his campaign to date -- as a protector of Medicare, a defender of his Massachusetts health reform law he's at times held at arms length, an advocate for marketplace regulations, and no fan of big tax cuts. There hasn't been enough polling yet to say conclusively whether Romney's gambit will score with voters, though a spate of surveys showing Romney surging in the wake of his commanding debate performance has elicited lefty panic.

Romney campaign insiders are promoting the reinvention as an opportunity to showcase Mitt the Man, a character who "in politics, business and life … has tried to do the right thing, even when it was not popular." His father evinced the trait to a fault. Whether voters will believe the son has followed suit remains to be seen.

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