SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Over and over, Mitt Romney takes credit for turning around the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City after a bribery scandal and says the success of the games is one big reason he should be president.
"My leadership helped save the Olympics from scandal and give our American athletes the chance to make us all proud," Romney said the night he won the Florida primary, his biggest victory of the Republican nomination fight so far.
He was putting his Olympics tenure back in the spotlight Saturday, speaking Saturday night at a celebration honoring the 10-year anniversary of the games. Romney planned to explain that his time running the Olympics is a fundamental part of the resume he's relying on as he runs for president.
But is the credit deserved? And how much credit really goes to the federal government, which ended up paying nearly $600 million directly to support Olympic projects, much of it after Romney's urging?
Presidential rival Rick Santorum seized on just that, telling a tea party rally in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday that one of the things that Romney "talks about most is how he heroically showed up on the scene and bailed out and resolved the problems" of those Olympics.
"He heroically bailed out the Salt Lake City Olympic Games by heroically going to Congress and asking them for tens of millions of dollars to bail out the Salt Lake games — in an earmark, in an earmark for the Salt Lake Olympic Games."
The Romney campaign does not dispute that congressional earmarks helped save the games. But the campaign noted that Santorum voted for those earmarks, among many others, when he was a senator.
"Sometimes when you shoot from the hip, you end up shooting yourself in the foot," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said. "There is a pretty wide gulf between seeking money for post-9/11 security at the Olympics and seeking earmarks for polar bear exhibits at the Pittsburgh Zoo."
People who worked on the games with Romney do give him credit while emphasizing he had help.
"Did he save the games on his own, no," said Lane Beattie, who was the president of the Utah state Senate at the time and was the state's liaison with the committee Romney ran. But he "absolutely" made them more successful.
Romney took over the games in 1999 after its leaders were accused of sending money to members of the International Olympic Committee to help Salt Lake City win the games.
Romney ran the Olympic committee "like a business," Beattie said. "He demanded excellence and he brought in incredible people. ... It wasn't all Mitt. What he did was bring in the best and the brightest he could find and put them in the right place."
Romney acknowledges he had help.
The Salt Lake Olympic Committee ran a more than $1.4 billion effort conducted over many years and involving thousands of people. Still, he has made himself the very public face of the effort, claiming he personally cut millions from the budget, wooed major companies and won sponsorships himself and pulled the whole endeavor back from the brink of failure. His record in Salt Lake was the cornerstone of his run for governor in Massachusetts, a campaign he announced in March 2002, just weeks after the games concluded. And now, in the presidential campaign, he is unambiguous.
"I led an Olympics out of the shadows of scandal," he told conservative activists in a speech in Washington this month.
Some critics say that's an oversell, and that fixing Salt Lake's problems was primarily an image problem.
"Mitt, he was a great image for the games, he did instill confidence in people, but to say he saved us, that's misplaced," said Ken Bullock, who served on the organizing committee board. "It's something you can put on your resume, but I think you have to be careful of embellishing or padding your resume."
Romney also got some help he never acknowledges on the trail: millions from the federal government. His aides say much of it was for increased security costs after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The games were held about five months later and security costs rose astronomically afterward.
But Romney doesn't mention the commitments the government had already made to cover costs associated with the games — or elaborate on his role in persuading congressional appropriators and critics to give the games more money.
In the 2004 book he wrote about the games, called "Turnaround," Romney outlined how he revamped the Salt Lake Olympic Committee's lobbying operations in Washington. He directed plans to hire experienced transportation lobbyists — even highlighting how he poached one from another group that was trying to win earmarks for non-Olympic projects in Utah.
He met Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, then the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. And he wooed Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who along with Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan had inquired about wasteful Olympic spending, resulting in a critical federal audit.
In one instance, Romney highlights how he made arrangements for different states to send experienced bus drivers to Utah to help transport people. Romney helped arrange to have them paid union wages, he wrote in the book, and he persuaded the federal government to pick up the tab.
One of the lessons he learned: "If you work at it long enough, there is always another way to get the help you need in Washington."
Democrats have already seized on Olympic spending under Romney's tenure. They point to the audit report that said the government planned to spend about $1.3 billion on the games, more than it had spent on previous American-hosted Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984 and Atlanta in 1996. In a web video released Friday, they called federal spending a "bailout" and pointed to scathing comments McCain made about the games.
McCain eventually called the games "an incredible pork-barrel project for Salt Lake City and its environs."
The U.S. does not directly finance the Olympics when a city wins a bid to host the games, unlike many countries. Instead, localities and the U.S. Olympic Committee — responsible for sponsoring and financing the U.S. Olympic team no matter where the games are held — pick up the cost. The government often pays for improving facilities and various other projects.
Ultimately, the Salt Lake City Olympic Games were a success — the first major international event after the Sept. 11 attacks.
During the campaign, Romney cites the story of Derek Parra, the gold medal speed skater who helped carry a tattered American flag from ground zero into the opening ceremonies, to complete silence from the crowd. The crowds at Romney's events often go silent as he tells the story, too.
"People know me because he tells the story all the time," Parra told The Associated Press in January. And in Parra, Romney has at least one more vote.
"He's been a leader for a number of years, so I think it's what we need in this country," Parra said. "So go Mitt."
Associated Press writer Lynn DeBruin contributed to this report.