12:01am

Tue April 26, 2011
The Spark

Mitt Romney: Like Father, Like Son?

There are at least a dozen Republicans considering a run for the White House in 2012. Over the next two weeks, NPR will be profiling some of them to find out what first sparked their interest in politics.

Before Mitt Romney went from the boardroom to the campaign trail, his father did the same thing.

George Romney was the head of American Motors — a gregarious, no-nonsense CEO who championed a line of innovative compact cars sold under the Nash and Rambler nameplates.

Then, in 1962, the elder Romney sought the governorship of Michigan, where then, as now, the big issue was the economy.

"I know that we are faced with a serious unemployment situation now, and a bigger one in the future," he said in an ad at the time. "I've saved jobs and I've created jobs. If elected governor, I know I can do something about bringing more jobs to Michigan."

That message — "I've saved jobs and I've created jobs" — is also one his son, Mitt, uses. In the latest version, it becomes an attack on President Obama's policies.

"He and virtually all the people around him have never worked in the real economy," the younger Romney says. "They just don't know how jobs are created in the private sector. That's where I spent my entire career."

George Romney: A Hard-Core Centrist

Back when Mitt Romney was just 15 years old, his father's run for governor was his first experience in big-time politics.

Back then, Keith Molin was just out of college in northern Michigan. He worked as a campaign aide and sometime driver for George Romney, and got to know Mitt on the 1962, '64 and '66 gubernatorial campaigns — all victories.

Molin recalls the teenage Romney working the bandstand on behalf of his dad at the Michigan State Fair.

"That was when I first met Mitt and saw many of the traits, in terms of people skills, that his father had," Molin says.

At the bandshell, not far from where the Romney campaign was set up at the fair, national acts performed day and night, including a popular folk group called the Serendipity Singers.

Molin says Mitt got to know the members of the group.

"By the time we got to Labor Day weekend, when the Serendipity Singers would close their act, we'd put on our last act of the night," he recalls. "And they were there backstage to close it with us, and they'd do the musical background when he was doing the pitch for his dad for governor."

Today, Molin is 74, retired after years in Michigan politics and state government. He says the candidate and father Mitt Romney so admired was a hard-core political centrist.

Sifting through photos and memorabilia from those long-ago campaigns, Molin pulls out buttons that read "Romney for jobs" and "Romney for schools."

"You never see the word 'Republican,' " he says.

That was to appeal to Democrats and independents, but also to distance the elder Romney from a GOP that he saw as becoming too extreme, culminating in the nomination of Barry Goldwater for president in 1964.

Thirty years later, when Mitt Romney entered politics, it was as a centrist — like his father.

That came after a successful business career — also like his father.

Charges Of Flip-Flopping

In 1994, the younger Romney, as a moderate, was a credible challenger when he ran against Sen. Ted Kennedy. He lost, but it was a springboard for a successful Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign in 2002.

Back then, Romney supported abortion rights.

He confirmed that in a debate with Kennedy: "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country — I have since the time my mom took that position when she ran in 1970 as a U.S. candidate. I believe since Roe vs. Wade has been the law for 20 years that we should sustain and support it."

Those words became a problem for him when he ran for the GOP nomination for president in 2008 as an anti-abortion candidate. His opponents labeled him a flip-flopper.

"You can go back to YouTube and look at what I said in 1994," he said at the time. "I never said I was pro-choice, but my position was effectively pro-choice. I've said that time and time again. I changed my position." But that explanation didn't satisfy his critics.

It remains to be seen whether abortion will be an issue for Romney this time. But now he has a different problem.

As governor, he signed a health care bill that was a model for the new national health care law — a law Republicans vehemently oppose and that Mitt Romney himself says should be repealed.

'An Entirely Different World'

Molin says George Romney never tacked back to the right and faced charges of flip-flopping, as his son has. But it's also true that running as a moderate is out of the question for anyone hoping to win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Molin pulls out a photo from 1963, with young Mitt standing near his father, who had just taken the oath as governor.

"Take a look at Mitt at this age and compare him with his father," he says. "You can see this young man growing into this young man. But you're gonna see this young man Mitt living in an entirely different world than his father lived in. Who's to say who's right and who's wrong? But I think that's the difference between the two."

But even with that difference, the similarities between the two Romneys are overwhelming: two successful businessmen, both prominent Mormons, both elected governor, both ran unsuccessfully for the White House.

But 50 years since he worked as a teenager on his father's first campaign, Mitt Romney hopes to mark the anniversary in 2012 by adding the job of president to his own resume. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.