WASHINGTON -- At the 1964 Republican Convention, 16-year-old Mitt Romney was sitting in the balcony of San Francisco's Cow Palace when, as he recalls it now, he saw his father stand up and walk out to protest nominee Barry Goldwater's explosive statement that ''extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."
Michigan Governor George Romney's popularity among GOP moderates was thus sealed, and three years later he emerged as an early favorite for the 1968 Republican nomination.
But the Romney family's road to the White House came to an abrupt end even before the first New Hampshire primary votes were cast, mostly because of a single, provocative statement about the Vietnam War.
And Mitt, then a Mormon missionary in France, was left with a formative appreciation for the treacherous waters of national politics -- and the lesson that any successful presidential run requires meticulous planning and discipline.
''The world of politics is turbulent and changing and dynamic," the Massachusetts governor said in an interview Friday. ''Public life has extraordinary rewards. It also is a very mercurial setting. A slip of the tongue or a misstatement can lead to a significant reversal."
Interviews with Romney intimates, including his chief strategist Michael Murphy and financial backer J.W. Marriott Jr., paint a portrait of a man who, having made a fortune as a venture capitalist, is an opportunist in the classic sense of the word, intent on remaining nimble and prepared to take advantage of shifting fortunes. ''As a businessman you keep your options wide open," said Republican strategist and pollster Richard Wirthlin, who met with George Romney when he ran for president and has informally advised his son.
Clearly, Romney is calculating his odds. In the interview, Romney compared himself to other governors. He estimated that his success with the Olympics added 10 percent more visibility nationally, while being governor of a large state such as Massachusetts added another 5 percent.
Now, as Romney strategists start to assess his presidential chances, supporters say, he is keenly aware of the parallels to his father's aborted political career, and determined to avoid the traps that doomed it.
''Like any smart guy, Mitt Romney is testing the waters and has a series of decisions to make," Murphy said. Asked about speculation that Romney may join a ticket headed by Senator John McCain of Arizona, another Murphy client, he said: ''It could happen. Both are A-list guys and attractive candidates."
Romney insists he has ''never plotted" his life and hasn't closed the door to anything. He will decide by late fall whether to seek reelection as governor in 2006; an unsuccessful reelection bid, or even an unimpressive win, would rule out a 2008 presidential run, analysts say.
''If he runs for reelection it would be very difficult to then move into the presidential arena," said Wirthlin, who was Reagan's strategist. ''The change from being governor to running for president is like going from traveling on roller skates to traveling on a jet engine plane." Analysts also note that Romney would have trouble campaigning for governor in liberal-leaning Massachusetts and then emphasizing his conservative credentials in the GOP primaries.
''He's much more conservative than his dad," said Murphy, a native of George Romney's state, Michigan. In a national race, Romney backers say his name would carry significant weight in the Midwest, where George Romney, a former chairman of American Motors Corp., is a well-remembered figure. Mitt Romney would also be helped in critical early primary states, particularly Arizona, where Mormons make up a significant percentage of the Republican vote. And his Massachusetts roots would help in the New Hampshire primary.
Romney, the youngest of four children who grew up in the well-to-Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, cuts a smoother style than his father, whose youth was spent in the dusty outback of Mexico, where some Mormons had fled in the late 1800s to avoid prosecution for polygamy.
''Mitt's management is just as aggressive, but he has a softer tone," said Wirthlin.
The similarities between the career paths of the late George Romney, who died in 1995, and his youngest son are uncanny. Both ran for governor as mid-50s men advertising their credentials as financial whizzes specializing in rescuing lost causes. Both enjoyed the moral support and hefty donor network of the Mormon Church. Both even benefited from fund-raisers held at the homes of the Marriott family, close family friends.
In fact, the Washington, D.C.-based Marriotts and the Michigan-based Romneys were so intimate that Mitt, whose actual first name is Willard, was named after the hotelier. The families vacationed together and the Romney children called the Marriotts ''Uncle Bill and Aunt Ally."
Romney notes that the elder Marriotts' sons--hotel chief executive J.W. Marriott Jr. and his brother Richard, also a hotel executive--are ''like cousins." Just as Romney helped fund the Mormon temple overlooking Route 2 in Belmont, Mass., the Marriotts provided ample financial backing for the white-spired tabernacle that looms above the beltway north of Washington D.C.
When Mitt Romney, encouraged by his father, stepped out of business to make an unsuccessful bid for Senator Edward M. Kennedy's seat in 1994, the Marriotts threw open the doors of their Maryland estate, which features a showroom of classic cars, for a fund-raiser, filling his coffers with $1,000 donations from colleagues and family members. They did so again during his 2002 run for governor.
In an interview Friday, J.W. Marriott said he has never talked to Romney about any presidential ambitions but added that both father and son are very ''determined" people. ''When the Romneys make up their minds -- get out of the way," he declared.
In 1964, family matriarch Alice Marriott, then national Republican committeewoman from the District of Columbia, opened her home for a 300-person reception honoring George Romney, fueling media speculation that a draft-Romney effort was afoot to block Goldwater's nomination.
''He was looking for a way to try to reduce the influence of the John Birch Society on the party and to strengthen the party's commitment to civil rights," Mitt Romney recalled of his father, who condemned Goldwater's vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. George Romney declared the party's nomination of Goldwater would be ''political suicide." On Election Day, Goldwater lost by a landslide, but his presidential campaign is fondly remembered today by conservative activists who make up much of the GOP primary vote.
George Romney suffered his own embarrassing downfall less than four years later when he attempted to explain his shift from viewing the Vietnam War as ''morally right" to later calling it ''tragic." He also worried that Vietnam was causing people around the world to view America as ''big military aggressors and imperialists."
During a TV interview in the fall of 1967, two years after a wartime visit to Vietnam and just as the presidential cycle was getting underway, Romney explained his earlier, more positive view this way: ''I just had the greatest brainwashing that anyone can get when you go over to Vietnam. Not only by the generals, but also by the diplomatic corps over there, and they do a very thorough job."
The ''brainwashing" comment ricocheted through the media, causing his poll numbers to drop. Days before the New Hampshire primary, his numbers still sagging, Romney stunned his supporters, including his wife, by abruptly deciding to drop out of the race.
Decades later, his son said, ''We're learning that you can overcome something like that." The kinds of missteps that once felled campaigns can be mitigated by carefully orchestrated strategies, he explained.
Just as Mitt Romney earned a reputation as a knight in shining armor for his Olympics work, his father turned around an ailing auto company. As chairman of American Motors, he railed against gas-guzzling ''dinosaurs" and promoted what he dubbed ''compact cars," in particular his signature product, the Rambler.
The Massachusetts governor's career, like that of his father's, was as unpredictable as a chess board. Mitt Romney went to Harvard Business School, planning to become CEO of an auto company. Instead, he ended up making a fortune as a venture capitalist.
In 1998, four years after losing to Kennedy, Romney tried to get back into politics through the back door, meeting separately with both Bush and McCain to offer fund-raising help for their budding presidential campaigns. Meanwhile, the Olympic committee based in heavily Mormon Salt Lake City called with a plea that he rescue the scandal-plagued games, and he sat out the 2000 campaign.
A year before his Olympics tenure ended in 2002, Romney and his wife, Ann, began plotting his next move, with an eye toward public office. Romney was riding high from the success of the Olympics, a ''powerful elixir," Wirthlin noted. While Romney told one reporter he was surveying the political landscape in both Massachusetts and Utah, friends say he never seriously considered staying out West. Utah's Republican slots were crowded and the family had roots in Massachusetts, which offered more political opportunity.
Still, if he were to run nationally, he would present himself as more than just the governor of Massachusetts. Son of a Midwestern governor, Mormon stalwart, and former head of a venture capital firm with nationwide investments, Romney is looking around.