Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney continues to lead other candidates for the Republican Party's presidential nomination in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire, although he trails some of the better-known contenders in national polls. Political analysts praise Romney's energetic campaign, but they say his changing positions on controversial issues and his Mormon faith may be serious obstacles to his quest for the White House. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has more on the Romney candidacy in this report from Washington.

On the surface, Willard Mitt Romney would seem to be the perfect candidate for president of the United States. He is telegenic, vigorous, and appears to relish meeting average Americans on the campaign trail.

Most political analysts see Romney as a polished politician and charismatic speaker. The 60-year-old candidate for the Republican presidential nomination was born into a political family, graduated from Harvard and is a former venture capitalist worth nearly $350 million.

In 2003, Romney was sworn in as the Republican governor of the heavily Democratic state of Massachusetts. His candidacy was given a boost after he successfully managed the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which before his arrival was tarnished by a bribery scandal.

Romney's turnaround of the Olympics made him a popular national figure and helped set the stage for his successful run for governor and current campaign for president.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says Romney is a strong contender.

"He's the most energetic candidate," he says. "He has the toughest schedule. He seems to work the hardest. He wants it the most. That matters in nomination politics."

Romney was born in 1947 in Detroit. He is the son of George Romney, a former governor of Michigan and unsuccessful candidate for president.

 Romney was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormons.

 The Mormon faith remains a mystery to many Americans. It is a faith that embraces American ideals of optimism, hard work and frugality.

But it also requires a passion for evangelism and secret temple ceremonies like baptisms for the dead, a ritual in which a living person is baptized on behalf of a dead individual who was not a Mormon. The ritual is not practiced in modern mainstream Christianity.

Polls show 35 percent of Americans say they are less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate for president, and political analyst Larry Sabato says that is a big problem for Romney.

"The liberals oppose Mormons because they are very conservative in their philosophy," he says. "The conservatives oppose Mormons because the fundamentalist religions consider them a cult. So you can't win. You lose people coming and going. These two strange ships passing in the night could end up hurting Romney's candidacy considerably."

Romney is a descendant of pioneer Mormons and is a passionate lay leader of the modern church. He spent more than two years as a missionary in Europe and says he does not believe his faith will harm his chances for election.

"I don't think people get into doctrines and, if you will, the periphery of a faith," he says. "My faith has made me a better person."

When Romney was governor of Massachusetts, he positioned himself as a moderate, favoring abortion rights, courting gay voters and supporting environmental groups.

However, as he prepared to run for president, Romney moved significantly to the right. He changed his positions dramatically, becoming an opponent of abortion and a critic of gay marriage. He adopted conservative stands on other social issues. Critics use the phrase "flip-flop" to describe Romney's revised views.

The candidate says his positions have evolved as he has moved through life.

"Not everything I believed 12 or 13 years ago is the same today," he says.

"I think Mitt Romney would like to get to that conservative sweet spot in the Republican Party," says John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute who specializes in the study of presidential politics. "He would like to show himself to be the true conservative in this race."

On foreign policy, Romney supports the current U.S. troop surge in Iraq and has harshly criticized the leaders of Iran.

Although Romney never served in the military, he portrays himself as a strong supporter of American men and women in uniform.

"When it comes to strengthening our military, I want to add at least 100,000 additional troops and provide the equipment they need in the battlefield to be safe and give them the care they deserve when they come home," he says.

Romney frequently campaigns with his family, including his high school sweetheart and wife Ann, their five sons and 10 grandchildren. Nearly 100 members of the Romney clan showed up last August to help him campaign just before the Iowa Straw Poll, an informal test of a candidate's strength in the state.

Romney won the straw poll by a sizeable margin, although some other Republican candidates chose not to compete after the Romney campaign devoted substantial resources to the contest.

The campaign's focus is now on the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, with the hope that a good showing in those contests will propel Romney to the lead among Republican candidates for president.