COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS, Utah — Mitt Romney never could resist a race.
Since dawn, half-marathoners had been whipping through a mountainside fog here, a short drive from the home he keeps, some 2,000 miles from the office he wants.
Mr. Romney stood just beyond the finish line, bopping in his jeans-and-flannel finest, smiling back at the runners like a distant relative at a wedding, waiting to be greeted. “Well done, well done, congratulations,” he said, handing medals to participants who may not have won in the end but plainly tried their hardest.
He clapped and shoulder-patted. He whiffed on a high-five. He studied the fingers of a woman unlocking her cellphone to take a picture with him, and guessed at the passcode. “Seven-six-four-three-nine-nine!” Mr. Romney shouted.
He laughed. People seemed confused. The camera clicked. Mitt Romney was back.
Six years after a presidential election defeat that loved ones expected to end his political career — and nearly a quarter century (and four campaigns) after his wife, Ann, swore she would “never” abide another run — Mr. Romney wants in again.
By January, he will almost certainly be a United States senator, representing a state his ancestors helped settle. He will return to the grand political arena where he is happiest, friends say, after years in semi-exile. He will matter.
The question is how.
Will he be a vocal check on President Trump, a man he once labeled a “phony” and a “fraud”? Or a mostly deferential Republican in a capital full of them?
So far, his campaign has leaned toward deference, disappointing some admirers (and even more Democrats) who hoped he would re-emerge chiefly as an unswerving Trump critic with gravitas — at last banishing the reputation for equivocation that dogged his presidential bids.
It was only two years ago, as Mr. Trump neared the Republican nomination for president, that Mr. Romney stood behind a lectern some 10 miles north of here and said the kinds of things a politician cannot generally take back:
“Dishonesty is Donald Trump’s hallmark.”
“He’s playing the members of the American public for suckers.”
“Very, very not smart.”
Mr. Romney said Mr. Trump must be stopped for the good of the party and the nation. He predicted recession and global tumult. He insisted that, as the Republican nominee for president in 2012, he would not have accepted Mr. Trump’s endorsement had Mr. Trump behaved then the way he was behaving as a candidate.
But about all that.
Few would conclude that Mr. Trump has changed much — rampaging, tweeting, inventing preferred realities, upending the G-7 economic world order. But for Mr. Romney, the circumstances have.
As past Trump antagonists like Senator Ted Cruz and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan — Mr. Romney’s former running mate, leaving Washington just as Mr. Romney hopes to arrive — seem to have concluded for themselves, admission to the head table of Republican politics in 2018 carries a membership fee: making peace with the president, however unpleasant.
Mr. Romney, it seems, can live with that.
Addressing donors and business leaders at his annual retreat on Thursday in Park City, Utah, Mr. Romney — whom some allies hoped might challenge Mr. Trump in 2020 — predicted that the president would be re-elected “solidly.”
He has praised Mr. Trump on policy (“we’re pretty much in the same place”) and accepted the president’s endorsement without delay.
Pressed on his past criticisms at a debate last month, Mr. Romney acknowledged no contradiction or reversal. “I’ve known the president for a long, long time and the president has endorsed me in this campaign,” he said, “which shows he respects people who call ‘em like they see ‘em.”
The evolution began with Mr. Trump’s election. Shortly afterward, as Mr. Trump weighed options for his first secretary of state, he considered Mr. Romney, who made pilgrimage to Manhattan to dine on frog legs with Mr. Trump in a public show of harmony.
Whether Mr. Romney genuinely views the president any differently now is not clear — and not particularly relevant to his supporters. What matters, they say, is that he is back in the scrum.
“He doesn’t feel quite as fulfilled as he did,” said Mike Leavitt, the former Utah governor and a close friend, “when he was right in the middle of the mix.”
Mr. Romney has been known to speak unprompted of past presidential losers, and their free-fall to irrelevance, remarking that Michael Dukakis “can’t get a job mowing lawns,” or borrowing a classic from George McGovern and Walter Mondale as his own: “All my life I wanted to run for president in the worst way,” Mr. Romney told a crowd recently. “And that’s just what I did.”
He has also recalled his late father, George Romney, in professional winter, when he struggled even to secure meetings after three terms as Michigan governor and a failed presidential run.
This Romney’s fate will be different. He is insisting on it, betting on a state that views him fondly as a Mormon leader and logistical hero of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
“When we began in Iowa, I’d have to say, ‘I’m Mitt Romney,’” Mr. Romney said in a brief interview at a festival. “‘So, who’s that?’ I’m a little better known here.”
“Makes it easier,” Mrs. Romney said.
But not that easy. In April, Mr. Romney fell short at a state party convention that could have given him the Republican nomination instantly, leaving him to fend off a challenge from a state legislator, Mike Kennedy, before the June 26 primary. Mr. Romney appears to be in little electoral danger, though, with high approval ratings and a healthy primary lead in a deep-red state.
Less clear, through a spitting haze on a soggy Saturday morning, is exactly why the Romneys want any of this.
He is a career executive — now 71, though he looks 55 on his worst day — applying to sit in congressional gridlock. He is a statesman-patrician from a very different Republican era, poised to become a junior senator. He is a man with a beautiful home in a beautiful state with a beautiful family, angling for a return to the Mid-Atlantic at the expense of endless ski days and scream-cheering for his granddaughter at high school water polo.
“I sink,” Mr. Romney said, explaining why the sport impresses him so.
“Some people can’t float,” said Mrs. Romney, his wife of 49 years. “He cannot float.”
But neither can he fade, those close to him say, if he wants to live without regret — a through-line in dozens of conversations with friends, relatives and former advisers. They cite no shortage of motivations for his candidacy: his Mormon faith and its emphasis on service; the memory of his father; his irrepressible ambition, coaxed by a family-wide conviction that he is a singular leader of his times, if only the voters could see it.
“Everyone is running out of a burning building. Mitt’s running in,” Mrs. Romney said in an interview. “This is Mitt, runs into burning buildings.”
That morning, Mrs. Romney had come along to see the runners, too, traveling shotgun in their 2002 black Chevy pickup and taking her place at the finish. A few feet away, her husband seemed exultant, chatting up a peer from Brigham Young University’s Class of 1971, suggesting best practices for medal distribution to volunteers, spotting a gentleman in a hoodie from his former city.
“Red Sox!” Mr. Romney called out, grinning and pointing. He was floating, or at least faking it well.
Mrs. Romney looked over and smiled, her focus meandering as the athletes passed. She used to run 10Ks herself, she said. She always regretted it in the moment. “While I’m running, it’s like, ‘Why did I do this?’” she said.
Mrs. Romney laughed, and then stopped laughing. This seemed to remind her of something.
In 1994, Mr. Romney had set off on his first brilliant political gambit — trying to beat a Kennedy in Massachusetts — when an adviser handed the family a novel to read: “The Last Hurrah,” about a politician who hangs on too long.
“A couple days later I saw Ann and she said, ‘I can’t believe he lost in the end! That was so sad!’” the adviser, Charley Manning, recalled. “Her belief in Mitt was just so total that she thought somehow in the end, he would win.”
He lost to Senator Ted Kennedy by 17 points that year. It is unclear if the book ever made it to the other side of the bed. “Ann read it,” Mr. Manning said. “I don’t know if Mitt ever did.”
Days before that election, with her husband dozing beside her on a campaign road trip, Mrs. Romney had told a Boston Globe reporter, “You couldn’t pay me to do this again.”
Eight years later, she was the first lady of Massachusetts.
Then came 2008: “I need to write myself some notes,” she said at the end of it, after Mr. Romney lost the Republican nomination for president. “Just to remind myself, ‘If you’re tempted, the answer is no.’”
And 2012: “We’re done,” she ruled, as her husband prepared a concession speech on election night. The family believed her this time.
And yet here they are, hugging distance runners in a parking lot.
Mr. Romney has told associates it was his wife who gave the nudge, comparing her view of politics to her efforts at childbirth.
“Every time after my mom had a baby, she was like, ‘All right, that’s it. No more. Never having another kid,’” said Josh Romney, one of their sons. “And then a year would go by, and she’d kind of forget about all the pain.”
They have five boys, one for each campaign.
After the loss in 2012, the family settled in the Salt Lake Valley. Mrs. Romney wrote a memoir about her struggles with multiple sclerosis and helped to open a center for neurological diseases in Boston.
Mr. Romney appeared at peace in relative obscurity, friends say, though whenever he would inch back into the public consciousness, the megaphone he retained pleased him. “He was surprised that he could still get on any TV show,” Josh Romney said.
He flirted briefly with a run for president in 2016, before reconsidering. The Senate opening, with Orrin G. Hatch stepping away after seven terms, made him think harder, with bipartisan encouragement.
In fact, a funny thing had happened to Mr. Romney when he receded from view: People got to know him better. A documentary in 2014, “Mitt,” captured shades of character that his campaigns never could, for all the millions spent on messaging. He was warm, self-deprecating, cleareyed about his weaknesses. Mr. Romney had long been such a stylistic throwback — a man whose idea of profanity was “H-E-double-hockey-sticks,” edging into a theater of insults — that his earnestness qualified as refreshing. He does not swear. He does not drink. He does not age.
“People need to see the real Mitt,” said Fraser Bullock, who worked with Mr. Romney at Bain Capital and as a top lieutenant for the 2002 Olympics. And the Senate campaign, friends believe, is a last chance to do it right.
They do not fault him for de-emphasizing his past rejection of Mr. Trump, observing that he has not explicitly disavowed the remarks, either. Mr. Romney recently told NBC News that he does not consider Mr. Trump a role model for his grandchildren.
“He’s not running against Donald Trump. He’s running for Mitt Romney,” said Thomas Rath, a former top aide on his presidential campaigns. “I haven’t heard him say that he withdraws his previous reservations.”
“Look at the ducks. Look at the ducks. There’s a duck! There’s a duck. Hello, ducks.”
His wife was freezing, damp babies were crying, and Mr. Romney was admiring farm animals.
“Hello, ducks,” he said once more, as if a response was forthcoming, admiring the petting zoo at a festival in Vineyard, Utah.
Mrs. Romney was asked if it was fun to be on the trail again. “It’s part of it,” she said. “It’s just” — she held for several beats — “part of it.”
The rhythms of a state-level race have long been more familiar to Mr. Romney, who in his youth watched not only his father’s runs but a Senate bid by his mother, Lenore, in 1970.
While his wife looms largest in his life and decision-making, former aides and advisers say, Mr. Romney’s aspiration to live the lessons of George Romney cannot be overstated. When he debated Barack Obama in 2012, Mr. Romney scribbled a single word atop his notes to anchor himself: “Dad.”
“His dad’s legacy weighs into every decision he makes,” Josh Romney said.
After George Romney left office in Michigan, his son recalled in 2014, he grew “quite frustrated” at his diminished relevance, saying that Washington was “the fastest place to go from ‘who’s who’ to ‘who’s that’?”
Mr. Romney plans to avoid a similar coda. He has already spoken in private about serving two terms. He hopes to join the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, among other assignments. And he has told supporters he wants to become a leading voice on fiscal discipline and immigration policy — about which he has said he is “more of a hawk” than the president.
“He’s hesitant to even bring up his name,” Josh Romney said. “He doesn’t want it to be about Donald Trump.”
Nor do the voters, in a state Mr. Trump lost decisively in the 2016 Republican caucus, seem especially inclined to make Mr. Romney talk about him. At the festival, Mr. Romney fell into conversation with firefighters, a sheriff, a former volunteer on his presidential race. “Wish I’d have won,” Mr. Romney told the man. “I apologize.”
After some 30 minutes, the Romneys returned to the parking lot. Mr. Romney was asked how the gathering compared to the Iowa State Fair, a summer mainstay of the national political calendar.
“This is colder,” he said, looking at his wife. Mrs. Romney smiled. It was time to go.
The pair hopped in the family pickup — just the two of them — and Mr. Romney steered them back into the fog.
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