DES MOINES -- In the summer of 2006, the Republican governor of Massachusetts was in Northwest Iowa, and he wanted to know if the local state senator had time to talk.

Mitt Romney and Sen. Dave Mulder met for an hour at a bank in Orange City. Mulder, who represents the most socially conservative part of the state, later summed up what he liked about Romney in one word: Sincerity.

"When I look at him, I think what you see is what you get," Mulder said.

Since then, the Republican race for the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses has turned on questions about Romney's sincerity. His supporters say he has rock-solid values and is unquestionably genuine. His opponents say he is a fake, someone whose views twist to meet the political demands of the moment.

Romney's greatest asset in the final weeks may be his upbeat demeanor at campaign events. He is relentlessly positive, even at the last stop in a grueling day. He almost always dresses the same -- a white shirt and tie -- and he devotes most of his time to audience questions. His supporters say he is at his best in those kinds of settings.

"He's the Energizer Bunny. I'm amazed at his stamina and capability," said Doug Gross, a Des Moines lawyer and chairman of Romney's Iowa campaign.

From the Olympics to politics

Romney, 60, was born and raised in the Detroit, Mich., area, the son of one of that state's political icons, George Romney. The elder Romney was governor and ran unsuccessfully for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. The Romney family was Mormon, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mitt Romney has faced questions throughout his political life about whether voters are comfortable with his faith.

Romney spent most of his adult life working for Boston-area consulting firms. He made a fortune by buying companies, improving their profitability and selling them. He made his first foray into electoral politics in 1994 when he ran unsuccessfully against Democrat Edward Kennedy for a U.S. Senate seat.

Romney entered the national spotlight early in this decade when he took over the troubled Salt Lake City Olympic Committee prior to the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. The notoriety from the Olympics helped springboard him to a return to politics. He won a close race for Massachusetts governor in 2002 and served until early this year.

Brad Jones, the Republican leader of the Massachusetts House, said Romney had the right approach at a time when the state economy was ailing. He said the main obstacle was Democratic legislators, who had large enough majorities to override Romney's vetoes.

Romney's most notable initiative was a statewide health insurance plan that got wide support from Democrats and Republicans.

Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University in the Boston area, said the health insurance plan was one of the only positives in an otherwise lackluster tenure. "I think most people feel his leadership in Massachusetts was disappointing," Berry said. "It was very clear by year two of his governorship that he had his eyes on the White House. And by the last year of his governorship, he was campaigning full time."

During his term as governor, Romney began to take more conservative positions on social issues. He came out against abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, saying his views had changed over the years.

An avidly conservative message

While many observers are skeptical, Romney has effectively communicated to Iowa voters that his beliefs are heartfelt. His conservatism is part of a larger image he puts forward at campaign events, highlighting the strength of his own family ties and defending traditional values.

"I am avidly pro-life," he said, speaking in November at Des Moines University. "I believe every speck of human life is a child of God and therefore I believe as a civilized society we should protect human life."

Comments like that have helped Romney gain inroads with evangelical Christian voters, sometimes in spite of his own Mormon faith. Mulder, the state senator from Northwest Iowa, said he is confident Romney would govern with strong moral values.

Mulder recalled a conversation with Romney earlier this year when he asked Romney if he had a favorite Bible verse, and Romney quoted John 3:16. "He believes the same things I do," Mulder said.

Dan Gearino can be reached at 515-243-0138 and dan.gearino@lee.net.

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