BOSTON — Mitt Romney may not have set out on the road to the Republican presidential nomination if not for a private meeting between strangers.
More than a decade ago, the 54-year-old Olympics CEO was at a crossroads as the closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Games approached. That's when Kerry Healey, head of the Massachusetts GOP, traveled across the country to meet with Romney. Inside the privacy of his office, Healey pressed the longtime businessman to run for governor. French figure skating judges waited outside as the meeting ran long.
"We had never met before. It was a cold call," Healey recalls.
Romney would soon agree to run, a decision that opened the next phase of his life.
Nine months after that February 2002 meeting, Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts. The post became the launching pad for a national political career that reaches its pinnacle Thursday when he accepts the Republican presidential nomination.
Those who know him well say it was not ambition that pushed Romney into politics anew after a failed 1994 Massachusetts Senate run. Instead, they describe a man driven to lead, likely the result of growing up in a family that emphasized service above all else. They say Romney truly believed in his own unique ability to solve problems.
He ran toward challenges, says longtime friend and business partner Bob White.
"A lot of people who just tuned in this presidential year haven't seen this history of stepping forward," White says. "It's that stepping forward that his parents talked about, not necessarily just public office. It how he's wired."
Indeed, Romney's father, George Romney, served as Michigan governor. He unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in 1968, later becoming a member of President Richard Nixon's Cabinet. Romney's mother, Lenore, later was an unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senate.
It was clear early into Romney's one term as Massachusetts governor that he, like his father, saw opportunities to lead on a larger stage.
Less than a year after taking office, Romney sought and won the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association. He raised tens of millions of dollars to help elect Republicans across the nation. In 2005, he made his first trip to Iowa, home of the leadoff presidential caucuses, to speak at the state GOP's fall banquet some weeks before President George W. Bush's re-election.
Romney would visit Iowa three times in 2005 and nine times in 2006. That year, he spent 212 days outside of Massachusetts. One trip included a visit to Iraq and Afghanistan to enhance his international credentials as his state grappled with a devastating flood.
His national focus hurt his standing back home. The fall before he left office, two in three Massachusetts residents disapproved of his job performance.
But by that time, there was little doubt Romney would seek the presidency. He already had declined to seek a second term as governor. He announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee for the 2008 race on his next-to-last day as Massachusetts governor.
Romney quickly proved he was a prolific fundraiser and carved out a reputation that year as the conservative alternative to Sen. John McCain by shifting to the right on key issues after tacking more to the center as Massachusetts governor. He spent millions to win symbolic test votes and millions more to support a bloated staff.
Nearly always perfectly groomed and wearing a suit, Romney ended up struggling to connect with voters. His Mormon faith proved an impediment, especially in Iowa and South Carolina. And his reversals on social issues gave rivals fodder to tag him as a flip-flopping candidate with no core belief system.
Romney, who later acknowledged that his strategy was flawed, would ultimately lose the nomination to McCain.
Ann Romney vowed that her husband would not run a second time.
But feelings had changed around Christmas of 2010 when the Romney family met at the kitchen table to discuss the prospect of another bid.
"I said, 'Is it too late to fix the country? And Mitt said something interesting. He said, 'Well it is not too late yet, but it is getting late," Ann Romney told a Florida audience recently. "And knowing that there was still time, I said, 'There is no question whether we go forward or don't go forward, because it is up to you to save the country, and so we must go forward.'"
Romney was convinced he had to do things differently the second time around.
He worked to shed his buttoned-up image by wearing more casual attire, such as jeans, sneakers and shirts with the sleeves rolled up. Facing a weak Republican field, his campaign's rallying cry became "leaner and meaner." He hired a smaller staff and listened to fewer consultants. He stockpiled tons of cash and an outside super political action committee made up of former staffers did the same. He focused his pitch on the economy and defeating Barack Obama. And he walked a careful line between presenting himself as acceptable to the tea party — a new insurgent group — and catering to it.
Starting in Iowa, Romney and his allies eviscerated his rivals — particularly former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — on TV, burying them in negative ads. Romney was briefly announced the victor by a narrow margin before the Iowa GOP reversed course and declared former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum the winner. But by that point, Romney had cruised to victory in next-up New Hampshire. Gingrich then rose in South Carolina, shellacking Romney after casting him as a job-killer. Then came Florida, and Romney easily overtook the competition.
He clinched the nomination months later, then quickly set his sights on his next goal: defeating Obama.
Now Romney stands at the precipice of formally becoming the party's standard-bearer, and possibly the country's next president.
It's that image that first flashed in Healey's mind after her meeting with Romney a decade ago. By the time she left, Healey — who would become Romney's lieutenant governor — couldn't help but agree with the whispers that had already begun about his future.
Says Healey: "I had no doubt on my first meeting with him that he had the potential to be the president of the United States."