Salena Zito

DERRY, N.H. -- "The measure of a life is the people you love," Mitt Romney says, describing what family means to him. "This is a big part of the family I love."

He sits in a basement exercise room at Pinkerton Academy, surrounded by wife Ann, eldest son Tagg, daughter-in-law Jennifer, and grandsons Joe, 10, Thomas, 8, and Jonathan, a rambunctious 18-month-old rolling a blue exercise ball twice his size.

In an exclusive interview with the Tribune-Review, Romney is relaxed and engaging; he alternately jokes and talks revealingly about family, childhood, personal beliefs.

And like a grandfather, he horses with Jonny, who toddles around erupting in giggles, or reminds Thomas to look a person in the eye when shaking hands.

This son of successful businessman and politician, George Romney, the youngest of four children, father of five sons and grandfather of 16, Mitt Romney says he turns first to his wife for advice, large or small.

"She has been my partner and counsel throughout my life," he explains, draping an arm affectionately behind her back.

His sons have no problem offering advice, too, "some of it solicited, some of it not. Tagg sends me e-mails every day," he says as his eldest son groans.

The boys know that campaigning can be like living in a bubble, so "they remind me about what is real."

He and Tagg agree that Romney's father could not have confined his messages to the limits of today's social media, such as Twitter.

"One-hundred-forty characters would not get it done," says Tagg, 41.

George Romney, onetime chairman of American Motors Corp. and Michigan governor, died in 1995. If he were still alive, Romney says, he "would be taking out a yellow legal pad and writing massive letters on new policy ideas I should look at. He would never tweet."

His father's legacy, besides "love of family, country and faith, was an understanding of the importance of integrity, character and conviction," he says.

"I don't know why a single governor is still known and respected over 50 years after he served. ... I can only imagine that he left a lasting impression on the people he served."

Almost daily, he says, people will tell him that they worked on his father's 1968 presidential campaign or when he ran for governor. "That has a huge impact on who I am."

Romney recalls growing up in a home where the dinner table was the center of family discussions about what had been read in two daily newspapers: "We would discuss the issues of the day, and he would solicit our advice like it mattered.

"I never imagined that he was teaching me. Looking back, I realize that he didn't need the opinion of a 12-year-old kid."

Those moments taught Romney to think for himself, "to listen and argue your positions with something to back them up with."

Daughter-in-law Jennifer sees the same dynamic between her husband, Tagg, and her father-in-law: "He likes the interaction. He expects you to back up your opinions."

It did not always work out well.

He recalls how his father would take him and his mother "to the styling studio at American Motors, where they would have clay models of future models they were considering. And he would ask my opinion about different cars and different looks.

"I had very distinct views. ... I presume that is why we have such lovely Ramblers," he jokes.

All of the Romneys are avid snow- and water-skiers; in his youth, Mitt Romney was known to ski barefoot but now leaves that to his children.

He enjoys riding horses, although he admits he is no accomplished equestrian like his wife. "I ride Western style and like to go out into the wilderness and see the great expanses," he says.

Riding is one thing Ann misses dearly on the campaign trail, and she says she hopes to find time for it after the Nevada caucuses. A breast cancer survivor who also suffers from multiple sclerosis, she finds riding to be soothing.

In public, Mitt Romney says, he tries "not to wear my faith on my cuff, but instead to live my life as I normally do, and people can understand my values by virtue of seeing my family and seeing how I interact with them ... how I live my life, how I feel about the country based upon the things I say.

"I don't try to describe my values."

At that, Ann reaches over to squeeze his hand -- a gesture that seems to underscore how family genuinely means everything to both of them.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.