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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

In a new series, we're examining the spark: the moment, or maybe the event, in the lives of Republican presidential hopefuls that help set them on their current path - seeking the nomination next year. And we're going to talk about Mitt Romney this morning.

He's been a corporate CEO, a governor and now, twice a presidential candidate. This morning, NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea takes us to Michigan, where almost 50 years ago, another Romney was making a transition from business to government.

DON GONYEA: George Romney, Mitt's father, was an auto executive, head of American Motors; a gregarious, no-nonsense CEO who championed a line of compact cars sold under the Nash and Rambler nameplates.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man: Look into a new motoring world from behind the wheel of a new Nash Ambassador or Statesman. Drive Nash for 55 at your Nash dealers tomorrow.

GONYEA: Then in 1962, the elder Romney sought the governorship of Michigan -where then, as now, the big issue was the economy.

Mr. GEORGE ROMNEY (Candidate, Governor, Michigan): I know that we are faced with a serious unemployment situation now, and a bigger one in the future. Ive saved jobs, and Ive created jobs. If elected governor, I know I can do something about bringing more jobs to Michigan.

GONYEA: That I've saved jobs, I've created jobs message is also one Mitt Romney uses. Here's the latest version, where it becomes an attack on President Obama's policies.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican presidential candidate): He, and virtually all the people around him, have never worked in the real economy. They just don't know how jobs are created in the private sector. That's where I spent my entire career.

GONYEA: But let's go back to when Mitt Romney was just 15 years old. His father's run for governor was his first brush with big-time politics.

Back then, Keith Molin was just out of college in Northern Michigan. He worked as a campaign aide and sometimes driver for George Romney. He got to know Mitt on the 1962, '64, and '66 gubernatorial campaigns - all victories. Molin recalls the teenaged Romney working the bandstand on behalf of his dad, at the Michigan State Fair.

Mr. KEITH MOLIN (Former campaign aide, George Romney): That was when I first met Mitt, and saw many of the traits that his father had.

GONYEA: Not far from where the Romney campaign was set up at the fair was the main band shell, where national acts performed day and night. That included a popular folk group of the day, called the Serendipity Singers.

(Soundbite of music)

Serendipity Singers (Band): (Singing) Green, green, it's green they say, on the far side of the hill...

GONYEA: Molin says Mitt Romney worked his way backstage, and got to know the members of the group.

Mr. MOLIN: By the time we got to Labor Day weekend, when the Serendipity Singers would close their act, wed put on our last act of the night. And they were there backstage to close it with us. And theyd do the musical background when he was doing the pitch for his dad for governor. But it was a memorable moment.

GONYEA: Today, Keith Molin is 74, retired after years in Michigan politics and state government. He sifts through photos and memorabilia from those long-ago George Romney campaigns. He says the candidate and father Mitt Romney so much admired was a hard-core political centrist.

Mr. MOLIN: These are buttons promoting Romney for jobs, Romney for schools, people for Romney. You never see the word Republican.

GONYEA: That was to appeal to Democrats and independents, but also to distance George Romney from a GOP that he saw as becoming too extreme, culminating in the nomination of Barry Goldwater for president in '64.

Thirty years later, when Mitt Romney entered politics, it was also as a centrist - just like his father. That came after a successful business career -also like his father.

In 1994, the younger Romney, as a moderate, was a credible challenger when he ran against Senator Ted Kennedy. He lost, but it was a springboard for a successful Massachusetts gubernatorial run in 2002. Back then, Mitt Romney supported a womans right to an abortion. This is from a debate with Senator Kennedy.

Mr. M. ROMNEY: I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country. I have since the time that my mom took that position when she ran in 1970, as a U.S. Senate candidate. I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years, that we should sustain and support it.

GONYEA: Those words were a problem for him when he ran for the GOP nomination for president in 2008 as a pro-life candidate. His opponents labeled him a flip-flopper. Explanations such as this didn't satisfy.

Mr. M. ROMNEY: You can go back to YouTube and look at what I said in 1994. I never said I was pro-choice, but my position was effectively pro-choice. I've said that time and time again. I changed my position.

GONYEA: It remains to be seen if abortion will be an issue for Mitt Romney in 2012 but now, he has a different problem. As governor, he signed a health-care bill that was a model for the new, national health-care law - a law Republicans vehemently oppose, and which Mitt Romney himself says should be repealed.

Keith Molin says George Romney never tacked back to the right, and so faced none of the charges of flip-flopping his son has. But its also true that running as a moderate is out of the question for anyone hoping to win the 2012 Republican nomination.

Molin then pulls out another photo from the stack, this one from 1963 with young Mitt Romney standing near his father, who had just taken the oath as Michigan's governor.

Mr. KEITH MOLIN (Former Campaign Aide): Take a look at Mitt at this age, and compare him with his father. You can see this young man growing into this young man. But youre going to see this young man, Mitt, living in an entirely different world than his father lived in. Who's to say who's right and whos wrong? But I think thats the difference between the two.

GONYEA: But even with that difference, the similarities between the two Romneys are overwhelming - two successful businessmen, both prominent Mormons, both elected governor, both ran unsuccessfully for the White House.

But next year will mark 50 years since Mitt Romney worked as a teenager on his father's first campaign. Hed like to mark that anniversary by adding the title president-elect to his own resume.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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