If you created an identikit portrait of the ideal candidate for the American presidency, you'd come up with something pretty close to Willard Mitt Romney.
First of all, his pedigree – his father was George Romney, business magnate, governor and presidential candidate in his time, and idolised by the son whose career uncannily mirrors his own. Mitt looks the part, too. At 64, he's slender and handsome, his dark hair flecked with white on the sideburns. Indeed, in 2002, People magazine named him one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World.
His family, it goes without saying, is also picture perfect. Ann, his wife of 42 years, not only has borne him five equally handsome sons; she is a remarkable woman in her own right, who has overcome cancer and multiple sclerosis. As modern Republican presidential politics requires, Mitt is a man of deep faith, and unencumbered by the slightest whiff of scandal (unless you count travelling to Canada for family holidays with his dog strapped in a cage to the roof of his car).
His career is no less impressive. He was co-founder of Bain Capital, a highly profitable private equity investment firm, from which he built a personal fortune now estimated at $250m. He has been fired in the crucible of early political defeat – a quixotic attempt to oust Ted Kennedy from his US Senate seat in 1994. But Mitt Romney soon rebounded.
In 1999, he was put in charge of the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics organising committee, then mired in scandal and far behind its fundraising targets. In the end, the Games were a resounding success and turned a profit of $100m. Later Romney boasted of his achievement in a book entitled Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership and the Olympic Games. Even his critics admitted he had a good deal to crow about. Salt Lake provided the springboard for the next step towards the presidential run that by then was clearly in his sights.
In 2002, he was elected Republican governor of the normally rock-ribbed Democratic state of Massachusetts. There, too, he was a success, restoring the state's finances and passing a healthcare bill that provided near-universal coverage for Massachusetts citizens. In 2008, he made his first bid for the White House, but never came close as his party's nomination.
Mitt Romney, however, has always been one to learn from his mistakes. He's running again (though in truth he never stopped). And this time he's a far better candidate – sharper and more relaxed, disciplined yet almost floating above the fray, as he focuses relentlessly on the economy. He's plainly competent, fluent in the issues and able to speak in coherent sentences. Watch the debates, and Romney often seems the only grown-up in a Republican field that sometimes can give the impression of originating on another planet. Wednesday night in Michigan was no exception.
Finally, there's the ancient Republican truth that the party almost invariably nominates the next in line for the crown. Unarguably that distinction now belongs to Mitt Romney. He's the highest placed survivor from the 2008 contest, and no one in the current field has better qualifications. Nor has anyone put in a longer shift on the rubber-chicken circuit, fundraising for Republican candidates across the land.
Polls consistently show he is the candidate with the best chance of defeating Barack Obama in a general election. By any conventional measure, he is the heir apparent – and he may well ultimately emerge as the nominee. A more pertinent question, though, is why on earth hasn't he already lapped the field a couple of times over.
The reasons essentially are three. First, Romney, who has already been endorsed by a host of party grandees, comes across as a product of the established system when voters regard that system – consisting of the federal government, the squabbling parties in Congress and Wall Street – as having failed the country miserably.
Second, there is Romney's Mormon background. His service to his church is beyond question, including two years as a missionary in Paris (how's that for a thankless task?), and more than a decade as a Mormon bishop in Boston, during his years at Bain. In 2007, Romney addressed the issue head-on in a speech, comparable to John Kennedy's in 1960 that helped lay to rest fears about the ultimate loyalties of the first Catholic president.
But he has never dispelled the doubts, especially among social and Christian conservatives so important in the Republican primaries, many of whom regard Mormonism as a cult. This time around, Romney has not mentioned his faith, but the question has not gone away.
But the main reason is Romney's inconstancy on the issues. Yes, he's not a great campaigner, and has never been good at connecting with ordinary voters. George W Bush was even more of a political blueblood, but managed to come across as a regular guy you'd happily have a beer with. When Romney tries to do the same, he seems stilted and awkward.
Romney's record, however, offers clues aplenty of how he would govern. Far more than Bush Jnr, the supposed president-as-CEO, Romney qualifies as precisely that, a capable crisis manager who picks competent subordinates and is ready to delegate responsibility. He is also, his career shows, no less ready to ditch allies in the interests of personal survival. But then again, what politician is not?
Style is one thing; substance, however, is another. The great unanswered question about Mitt Romney is the most basic one. Who is Mitt Romney? Is he still deep down the man who was formally registered as an independent until he took on Ted Kennedy? Or is he the ruthless Wall Streeter Kennedy depicted him as in 1994, buying up companies, laying off workers and pocketing the profits?
Or is he the Romney who ran in Massachusetts in 2002, so attractive to moderates and independents, who favoured gun controls and gay rights, and defended a woman's right to an abortion? That Romney, it would appear, has vanished. The 2012 model is hard-edged and conservative. But the Republican right is not convinced. They believe that if he wins the nomination, Romney will do what opponents say he has always done, abandoning the principles of the moment and trimming to what is politically expedient – in this case, the centre they suspect he never really left.
Romney's version of events naturally differs. Moderation was the only way a Republican could win office in Massachusetts, he maintains. "It was like a team playing all its games away." The most telling example, perhaps, was his signature achievement and now his greatest albatross, the healthcare reform that provided the model for "Obamacare" but is reviled by every Republican in the land.
The scheme displayed his ability to tackle a seemingly insoluble problem – of providing coverage for all – in a new and creative way, and see it into law. But it also showed his slipperiness, in the way he vetoed parts of the measure in the full knowledge the vetoes would be overridden by the Democrat-dominated legislature. Those vetoes, however, would serve to prove his conservative bona fides to Republicans across the country in the subsequent presidential run that nobody by then doubted.
Romney, in short, is labelled the "flip-flopper" to end all flip-floppers. The single constant strand in this strange primary season has been the conservatives' hunt for a trusted standard bearer, the perfect ABR, or "Anyone but Romney". Their gaze has alighted in turn on Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and now, perhaps, Newt Gingrich. Even when his chief rival of the moment stumbles, Romney has been unable to crack a 25 per cent ceiling in the polls. Somehow, though, you still suspect he will be the last man standing.
A life in brief
Born: Willard Mitt Romney, 12 March 1947, Detroit, Michigan.
Family: Youngest son of George, former governor of Michigan. Married Ann Davies in 1969; five sons. He is a sixth-generation Mormon.
Education: Attended Cranbrook School, Brigham Young University, Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School.
Career: Founded the investment firm Bain Capital in 1984. Elected governor of Massachusetts in 2003 and ran for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
He says: "I don't worry about the other guys." After Rick Perry's gaffe in debates this week.
They say: "Mitt Romney is another John McCain waiting to happen." John Stemberger, former Florida GOP official