WASHINGTON – What are the odds of this? A guy gets into a head-on collision, has a police officer write "He is dead" at the scene, and lives to tell.
Mitt Romney knows a thing or two about second chances.
After that long-ago highway collision when he was a young missionary serving in France, Romney earned an outsized reputation and millions of dollars as a corporate turnaround artist, fixing bottom lines, cleaning up the scandal-tarred Salt Lake City Olympics and giving various other endeavors a second wind.
Now he is determined to do that for himself. (And his country, he would say.)
"I've never seen an enterprise in more desperate need of a turnaround than the U.S. government," Romney says.
An also-ran to John McCain in the 2008 Republican nomination fight, Romney is the closest thing to a front-runner that the still-jelling GOP presidential field for 2012 has to offer. On Thursday, the former Massachusetts governor made his candidacy official during an appearance at a farm in Stratham, N.H., declaring that "Barack Obama has failed America."
With his good looks, able fundraising, strong political organization, solid family and business acumen, Romney sounds like a candidate ordered from central casting to run in a time of economic stress.
But to succeed where he failed four years ago, Romney, 64, will need to convince voters that behind the picture-perfect presentation lurks a human being with a passion to lead and an unshakeable set of convictions.
The rap against Romney in 2008 was that he'd conveniently reinvented himself to fit the political environment of the day. The man who'd governed Massachusetts as a pro-abortion rights moderate and delivered a bold statewide plan for universal health care coverage offered himself to Republicans as an anti-abortion social conservative who advocated limited government.
And that set off authenticity alarm bells with voters around the country. Pundits who thought his Mormon faith might be a problem for him concluded his changing political convictions probably caused him more grief.
This time around, Romney hopes the campaign for the GOP nomination will roll down his "power alley" — the economy and his business background — and away from social issues that bogged him down. He's coming across as a little looser in the process. After he got into a tiff with a rapper onboard an aircraft last year, the well-gelled Romney joked that the singer "broke my hair."
Over the past four years, he wrote a book, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness," built a political machine and cultivated diverse friends.
The dust had hardly settled on the bruising nomination struggle of 2008 when Romney threw himself behind the candidate who had defeated him, began raising money for Republicans across the country and started pushing all the right buttons in the party.
Watching this unfold, Republican strategist Mary Matalin was struck by how Romney, in seeking common cause with the party's religious, intellectual and economic forces, may have "the greatest potential to pull all those factions together" even though other candidates may stir more passion in their core followers.
If only he could get "Romneycare" off his back.
The health care law he signed as governor has gone on to extend coverage to more than 98 percent of Massachusetts residents, unparalleled in the nation. But he's not bragging.
The package's stiff insurance mandate, its protections against losing coverage, penalties for noncompliance and subsidies for those needing help were largely embraced and adapted in President Barack Obama's national overhaul. That risks causing Romney no end of grief from Republican rivals as the field plays to anti-government sentiment and goes after "Obamacare" in the primaries.
At the moment, it's hard to tell if Romney is proud of what he accomplished. "Some things worked, some didn't, and some things I'd change," he remarks now, somewhat defensively. He says his measures were not a federal mandate on all states, a fundamental difference that still does not erase the fact that government made the rules and diverted the tax dollars to make the changes happen.
He tackled this conundrum head on in a half-hour talk and slide show in Michigan last month. He had called his book "No Apology" as a dig at President Barack Obama, whom he accuses of selling American exceptionalism short. But this time the label applied to him. There would be no apology for Romneycare; instead, a somewhat tortured explanation of it.
"A lot of pundits around the nation are saying that I should just stand up and say this whole thing was a mistake, that it was just a boneheaded idea and I should just admit it," Romney said then. "There's only one problem with that: It wouldn't be honest. I, in fact, did what I believe was right for the people of my state."
The speech was largely a bust with conservatives, although it appears not to have knocked him down many pegs. In any event, his book lays out different, safely Republican ideas about how to fix the system. He calls it "free-market health care." Expect to hear a lot about that in the GOP debates to come.
Willard Mitt Romney is the son of George Romney, who was chairman of the old American Motors, a Michigan governor and failed Republican presidential hopeful in the 1960s.
His near-death experience occurred in June 1968, when he was driving on a winding French road as a young missionary and his Citroen was struck head-on. One passenger was killed, and a police officer took the unconscious 21-year-old driver for dead and wrote on Romney's passport: "Il est mort" ("He is dead.") He turned up, battered but alive, in a local hospital.
Romney earned simultaneous law and business degrees at Harvard on his way to a high-flying corporate career that would take a turn to politics.
He worked for Boston Consulting Group, helping companies fatten their bottom lines. Then he moved to rival Bain & Co., where he led a new spinoff, Bain Capital, which combined management consulting with investments in promising companies. He helped start or reinvigorate hundreds of companies, Staples and Domino's Pizza among them, on his way to amassing a personal fortune.
It's just the resume the country needs, says Romney, who calls Obama "one of the most ineffective presidents" he's ever seen.
"What I know and what I've spent my life doing is particularly relevant right now," he said last weekend in Iowa.
Romney took on Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1994, a hopeless quest. "He took me to school," Romney said afterward. Years later Kennedy would stand with Romney at the signing of the landmark health care law.
Romney cemented his reputation as a turnaround artist when he stepped in to clean up the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah, reeling with accusations of bribery and resignations from the organizing committee. He cut costs, boosted revenues and oversaw a successful event despite the dark shadow over the nation from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
That made it a ripe time to reawaken his political ambition. Republicans recruited him to run for governor in deeply Democratic Massachusetts. Backed by $6 million of his own money, he won.
The combination of fiscally conservative and socially moderate policies he brought to that race proved a winning formula in the state, but complicated the 2008 primaries, which are dominated by conservative voters. His challenge then remains his challenge now on the road to 2012.
Associated Press writer Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.