WASHINGTON -- When Mitt Romney was 14, Dwight D. Eisenhower came to his family's house for dinner.
Ike had just finished his eight years as president -- it was around 1961 -- and he came because he knew Mitt's father, George, then the chairman ofAmerican Motors Corp.
The teenager listened to the older men swap tales of World War II; he recalled how they talked about "the invasion," as well as American politics. Years later, Romney reflected on that dinner as he tried to explain during an interview why he thinks he's ready to sit in the Oval Office.
"I saw that (presidents) were not Supermen who could leap tall buildings in a single bound," he said. "They were ordinary people with, in some cases, extraordinary talent."
His talent, he said, is an ability to bring people together to solve problems. "Ronald Reagan didn't have all the answers to all the problems," said Romney, "but he knew how to motivate people and change a nation."
Romney's friends say that his strength is as a problem-solver, someone with a knack for bringing people together and staying unrattled by pressure.
He created a thriving venture capital firm in the 1980s. It invested in well-known companies and became wildly successful. He later was credited with saving the scandal-plagued 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
But being a good manager doesn't automatically mean that there's a political leader behind the glittering resume.
Massachusetts AFL-CIO legislative director Tim Sullivan brands Romney a "vulture capitalist." Others who've dealt with him are eager to join the critics' chorus. In some ways, they say, the title of Romney's 2004 autobiography says it all, good and bad. The title: "Turnaround."
The Romney family settled in Michigan, where Mitt's father George became a corporate star of the post-World War II era, the man who rocketed American Motors to fame in the 1950s when he helped created the popular Rambler; at one point it muscled its way to the third best selling car in America. By the 1960s, he'd become the state's governor and, briefly, a 1968 presidential candidate.
Mitt Romney met Ann Davies in high school; on their first date he picked her up in an American Motors Marlin and they saw "The Sound of Music." They've been married for 38 years and have five sons.
After several years in the business world, Romney got the political itch.
In 1994, he challenged Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts. The race was never close; Kennedy was seeking a sixth full term, and the contest was largely a referendum on his tenure.
But Romney did better than expected, winning 41 percent of the vote, the best showing against Kennedy since 1962. Romney began to attract interest from important Massachusetts constituencies.
Gay rights activists were pleased when he wrote the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay GOP loyalists, in October 1994 that the military's new "don't ask, don't tell" policy was "the first in a number of steps that will ultimately lead to gays and lesbians being able to serve openly and honestly in our nation's military."
He told voters that "abortion should be safe and legal in this country. ... I sustain and support that law (Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court abortion rights case) and the right of a woman to make that choice."
He returned to Bain and venture capital, but when the call came from Kem Gardner, a close friend active in Utah affairs, in 1998 to help rescue the Salt Lake City Olympics, Romney realized what an opportunity it could be.
He still had the political bug and wrote how "I couldn't help wondering if it (the Olympic job) was the doorway I had been looking for ..."
Romney confronted what seemed like an impossible predicament. The organizing committee had been rocked by reports of cash payments to international and Salt Lake City Olympic officials. Organizers were talking about scaling back the budget if the controversy dried up fundraising.
Romney persuaded corporations to continue supporting the games and dramatically cut the budget, while earning a reputation as a charming turnaround artist.
Republicans in Massachusetts noticed. Incumbent Gov. Jane M. Swift, a Republican, was sinking in the early 2002 polls; in March, after lambasting Romney as a carpetbagger who thinks that "Taco Bell is the local telephone company," she withdrew from the race.
Within hours, Romney, encouraged by local political and business leaders, was in. He portrayed himself as a problem-solver who could rise above partisanship.
"We specifically asked if he'd support efforts to increase access to emergency contraception," recalled Nicole Roos, the chair of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts' political committee. "The answer was yes."
However, in 2005, he vetoed legislation expanding access to emergency contraception, saying that such practices sometimes cause abortions.
He also convinced gay rights activists that he was squarely on their side. Shortly before the election, about two dozen Log Cabin Republicans met with Romney at a Boston restaurant, and he gave every indication that he favored civil unions.
By early 2006, though, these groups were seeing a very different Romney. As he prepared to run for president, he came to Washington and had lunch with about 40 members of the national media. He was, as he put it, now "firmly pro-life."
"I'm in a different place than I was 12 years ago," he said. "Twelve years ago I refused to take any label."