WASHINGTON -- One of Mitt Romney's oldest Democratic supporters says the Republican presidential contender is a "warm" and "decent" person who is only masquerading as a die-hard conservative to win the Republican nomination.
"Obviously the positions that Mitt's taking now are different than the positions he did when he ran for and served as Governor of Massachusetts," Rocky Anderson, the former mayor of Salt Lake City, told HuffPost. "His handlers got to him and said, 'This is what you need to do.' And that's what he's doing to get elected."
Anderson worked closely with Romney on the 2002 Winter Olympics, and the two developed a mutual admiration for each other, by Anderson's account. When Romney was running for governor of Massachusetts, he turned to Anderson for bipartisan validation of his character quality and political moderation. And when Anderson was running for reelection, Romney returned the favor.
Romney, now running for the presidency for the second time, is presenting himself as a much more conservative politician than he was back then. But Anderson said the candidate is hiding his true self, a charge common among Romney’s critics.
"I think I know the core of Mitt Romney," Anderson said. "I think he's a really decent person. I know his wife well; she'd probably be a Democrat if she wasn't married to Mitt. They're very warm people with great sense of humor. Mitt's a very straight Mormon. I think she's not quite as doctrinaire about that as he is. But, you know, doing the day-to-day work, I think Mitt's as smart as probably anybody that's ever been in the White House."
The two men's relationship was so close, in fact, that both Romney and Anderson cut television ads endorsing the other for public office.
WATCH Anderson endorsing Romney:
WATCH Romney endorsing Anderson:
Anderson also knows Romney from outside of politics: When the Olympic Games were being planned for Salt Lake City, the two worked side-by-side to overcome operational and financial missteps.
"He was fantastic. There were no pretensions. He's the most down to earth, amiable, hard-working, very bright person. And ... he built a great team," Anderson said. "And he and I talked, especially toward the end, about his returning to Massachusetts and what his plans were. And I found him extremely moderate. Of course he was going back to Massachusetts to run for governor, but we talked about a lot of things, gay rights. And he knew where I was on these things."
Anderson had previously lost a congressional race in Utah in 1996 during which he openly supported legalizing gay marriage. He served as the mayor of Salt Lake City from 2000 to 2008.
His critiques of Romney, however, aren’t driven by a desire to score electoral points for Democrats as they prep to face the likely presidential candidate, he said. Anderson said he no longer identifies with the party, saying that it has become "militarist and corporatist." He currently runs a human rights advocacy group, High Road for Human Rights, devoted to raising awareness about slavery, genocide, the death penalty, torture and climate change. He referred to President George W. Bush as "a war criminal" for his administration's torture policies, and said he could never vote for President Barack Obama again. Anderson holds Romney in much higher esteem.
"I meant it," Anderson said, of his decision to vouch for Romney in 2002. "There was no quid pro quo. There wasn't a promise, 'I'll do this for you if you do this for me.' I felt very good about endorsing him. I don't think partisanship should control everything. The Democrats put up a pretty mediocre candidate and I did think that Mitt was a reasonable person."
He still does. Anderson's said his concern is that trying to win the Republican primary may just prevent Romney from letting that reason surface.
"I just wonder if once there, he would do what he's doing now in the campaign, and taking this extreme right-wing tack simply to please people for more base kind of political reasons."
A spokesperson for Romney declined to comment.