GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is running on what he says is a long track-record of success — in business, running the Olympics, and most recently, as governor of Massachusetts. But Romney's first bid for public office was a disappointment. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1994. His opponent was Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Romney always knew that challenging the Massachusetts senator would be an uphill battle. The section of his memoir, Turnaround, that describes the contest is called "Storming the Castle."
"Might as well give it to him straight: Hey, Mr. Romney, Kennedys don't lose in Massachusetts," Romney adviser Charley Manning recalls thinking at the time.
For a short time, though, in the fall of 1994, it looked as if that might change. Kennedy was vulnerable, in the wake of his nephew's 1991 rape trial. And after 32 years of "Sen. Kennedy," many voters were ready for a change.
Manning says Romney was the best first-time candidate he ever worked with. The Boston Globe called him "the multimillionaire Prince Charming with the Midas touch in business." Surveys taken around Labor Day showed the race in a virtual tie.
"The idea that a Kennedy might be vulnerable at that point in his career came as a real surprise — not only to the political community, but to Kennedy himself," says pollster Lou DiNatale, director of the Center for Civic and Economic Opinion at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
But two months later, on Election Day, amid big Republican gains nationwide, Kennedy won by more than 300,000 votes. What happened in those two months is the story of a rare setback in the otherwise success-studded career of Mitt Romney.
The Mormon Issue
Kennedy himself deserves some of the credit. The veteran lawmaker rallied in time for a late October debate at Boston's Faneuil Hall.
"He was able to put Romney on the defensive," recalls Democratic media consultant Dan Payne. "At one point, he asked Romney if he knew the cost of a health care plan that Romney was proposing. And Romney just blanched. And he sort of went into his Ralph Kramden — humina humina humina. He didn't have an answer."
The Kennedy camp also made an issue of Romney's Mormonism. Rep. Joseph Kennedy, Edward's nephew, alleged that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints didn't allow black priests, even though that rule had been changed 16 years earlier. The religious attack surprised Romney adviser Manning. After all, he'd watched proudly a generation earlier when John Kennedy successfully fought off questions about his own Catholic faith.
"I remember thinking, 'Would they go after Mitt's religion?'" Manning says. "And I thought, 'No way. Even the Kennedys wouldn't sink that low.'"
The Kennedy camp was roundly criticized for raising the Mormon issue. But the damage was done.
Manning says the attacks made Romney seem "weird and exotic" in heavily Catholic Massachusetts. Even now, a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds 62 percent of non-Mormons in the U.S. believe the faith is very different from their own religion.
Strikers Raise Questions About Romney's Firm
In the 1994 race, Romney also faced an attack from an unexpected source: a group of striking paper workers from Indiana. The Ampad company had recently bought their unionized plant, cut their wages and laid off some of their colleagues. When the strikers learned that Ampad was largely owned by Mitt Romney's investment firm, they traveled to Massachusetts to make their case.
"We called them the truth squad to tell our side of the story," recalls union leader Randy Johnson. "More than one group said they felt like the Beatles, they had so much press on them."
The story the strikers told was the opposite of the image Romney was trying to project of a job creator, and the Kennedy camp played it up.
Lesson Learned: Fight Back
Romney argued in vain that he had nothing to do with the job cuts at Ampad. He'd taken a leave of absence from his investment firm before the decisions were made. But fair or not, the attack stung. And Romney didn't fight back. Pollster DiNatale calls that a "rookie mistake."
"The surprise was not that Ted Kennedy came at him this way. The surprise was that Romney didn't seem prepared for it. And even though he had a few bullets in the gun, he never got a shot off," DiNatale says.
Romney adviser Manning agrees. He says it's a mistake Romney wouldn't make again.
"One of the lessons I think Mitt really learned was, you can't leave it up to the media to tell your side of the story. You've got to go out and set the story right," Manning says.
Even critics say Romney honed his skills in that first race, and by the time he won the governor's office eight years later, he was a formidable politician.
About-Face on Abortion
Since then, it's not just Romney's skills that have evolved. Both times he ran in Massachusetts, Romney campaigned as a moderate on social issues like gay rights and abortion.
"I have my own beliefs. And those beliefs are very dear to me. One of them is that I do not impose my beliefs on other people," Romney said in that 1994 debate.
Romney told the story of a "close family relative" who died from an illegal abortion. Referencing his mother, who ran for Senate in 1970 with an abortion-rights platform, Romney said, "It is since that time that my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want. But we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that."
But Romney has since done an about-face on abortion; he's now running for president as a social conservative. He says the turnaround began with some soul-searching on the issue of stem-cell research. Romney's conversion does make him more appealing to many Republican primary voters, but it also raises a question: Does he believe what he says now, or what he said back then?
"Honestly, I've watched this guy for almost 20 years, and I really have no clue," says Democratic consultant Payne. "I don't know which Romney is the real Romney."
That's a perception Romney will have to overcome if he hopes to avoid another disappointment. In his memoir, he writes that the loss to Kennedy in 1994, although expected, felt worse than he'd imagined. And it left him with a bug of wanting to be more involved, wanting to make more of a difference in people's lives.