By Maureen Dowd
New York Times
SALT LAKE CITY — When the Mitt Romney documentary premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival last year, one member of the audience was especially charmed by the candidate up on the screen.
That guy is great, Mitt Romney thought to himself. That guy should be running for president.
It was an "Aha" moment that came to him belatedly at age 66, after two failed presidential runs that cost more than $1 billion.
Mitt had a revelation that he should have run his races as Mitt - with all the goofiness, Mormonism, self-doubt and self-mockery thrown into the crazy salad.
Some of his strategists had argued against the movie. But wasn't it endearing, when the tuxedo-clad Romney ironed his own French cuffs while they were on his wrists? When he listened to "This American Life" on NPR with his family? When he wryly called himself a "flippin' Mormon"? When he and Ann prayed on their knees just before the New Hampshire primary? When he went sledding with his grandkids?
He was himself as a moderate Massachusetts governor. But when he ran for president in 2008, he was "severely conservative," as he would later awkwardly brag, and that wasn't him.
In 2012, he was closer but still not truly himself, putting his faith and centrist record off to the side. He had surrounded himself with Stuart Stevens and other advisers who did not have faith that the unplugged Mitt could win, and the candidate did not have enough faith in himself to push back against them.
"It's a sad story of discovery," said a Republican who is friends with him. "He kept going through campaigns and evolving closer to himself. Then he saw the documentary and it was liberating, showing 100 percent of himself instead of 80. But it was too late. You don't really get three shots."
Romney got bollixed up by dueling fears that the unkind arena would rage at him if he put up his guard and rage at him if he dropped it. He was haunted by the collapse of his father's 1968 campaign for president after his father dropped his guard, telling a Detroit TV broadcaster that he thought he had been brainwashed into supporting the Vietnam War by U.S. commanders and diplomats there.
But after Romney saw the documentary Mitt — by Mormon filmmaker Greg Whiteley — and felt that he could be Mitt "all the way," as one friend put it, he was ready to run "a hell of a race."
Mormons learn firsthand that rejection — as the young Mitt learned in Paris on his mission when he got fewer than 20 converts in 2 1/2 years — doesn't mean you should stop trying.
Recent polls had Romney ahead of Jeb Bush and other Republican contenders. He was more in demand on the trail than President Barack Obama during the 2014 campaign. He had shied away in 2012 from explaining the role of faith in his life, worried that Mormonism might still sound strange to voters if he had to explain lore like the white horse prophecy, that a Mormon white knight would ride in to save the U.S. as the Constitution was hanging by a thread.
But, in the last few weeks, Romney had seemed eager to take a Mormon mulligan. Less sensitive about his great-grandparents fleeing to Mexico to preserve their right to polygamy, Romney began joking to audiences that when he learned about the church at Brigham Young University, "Emma was Joseph Smith's only wife."
It was foolish to ever think he could take his religion — which is baked into every part of his life — and cordon it off.
In Park City on Wednesday, I talked to Jon Krakauer, the author of Under the Banner of Heaven, a history of Mormonism, and executive producer of Prophet's Prey, a Showtime documentary, which was premiering at Sundance, about the most infamous Mormon polygamous cult.
"I don't think he has a choice," Krakauer said. "I don't know how people will react, but he has nothing to be ashamed with, with his faith. And by not talking about it, it looks like he does."
It was the same mistake Al Gore made in 2000 when he listened to advisers who told him he would seem too tree-huggy if he talked about the environment. When that was off-limits, Gore lost the issue he was least likely to be wooden on; it was the one topic that made him passionate - not to mention prescient.
If Mitt was 100 percent himself, he began to think this time, he could move past the debacles of his 47 percent comment caught on tape and his cringe-worthy 13 percent tax rate— both of which had made him seem like the pitiless plutocrat conjured by Democrats.
Two weeks ago, at a Republican meeting in San Diego, Romney talked about his decade as a Mormon bishop and stake president, working "with people who are very poor to get them help and subsistence," finding them jobs and tending to the sick and elderly.
He changed his residency to Utah and started building a house in a wealthy suburb of Salt Lake City. He got a broker for the luxe La Jolla oceanfront home with the four-car elevator.
It was reported that a 2016 Romney campaign could be based here. Romney had been burning up the phone lines with donors and past operatives and was reassembling his old campaign team. But Jeb Bush popped Mitt's trial balloon by peeling off the money and the talent.
"He thought there was more interest than there was," one strategist close to Romney said. "There wasn't a big groundswell. The donor-activist-warlord bubble had moved on. It's a tough world. Mitt didn't want to claw and slug."
Or as his 2008 presidential campaign adviser Alex Castellanos put it, "Mitt Romney found he had walked out on stage without his pants."
At an appearance Wednesday in Mississippi, where he seemed to be honing talking points and attack lines for a possible run, he said Hillary Clinton had "cluelessly" pushed the reset button with Russia.
He blamed the news media and voters for concentrating on the wrong things. "It would be nice if people who run for office, that their leadership experience, what they've accomplished in life, would be a bigger part of what people are focused on, but it's not," he said. "Mostly it's what you say — and what you do is a lot more important than just what you say."
But both in what he said and did, Romney came across as clueless in 2012. He was hawking himself as a great manager, but he couldn't even manage his campaign. His own advisers did not trust him to be himself. They did not adapt what the Obama team had taught everyone in 2008 about technologically revolutionizing campaigns. His own campaign was in need of a Bain-style turnaround and he was oblivious.
The reel Mitt could have told the real Mitt, as Romney said in the documentary, that the nominee who loses the general election is "a loser for life."
He seemed shocked, the night of the election, to learn that his white horse was lame. But how could he have won? The wrong Mitt was running.