BOSTON — In the summer of 1996, Mitt Romney received a frantic report from one of his fellow executives at Bain Capital.
Robert Gay's 14-year-old daughter, Melissa, had gone missing after taking a train into New York City, Gay told Romney. Gay said he and his wife, Lynette, had contacted the police and were desperately trying to track down Melissa.
She might have become lost in an underworld rave party scene after attending a party on Randall's Island on the city's East River. Rave parties were typically all-night affairs punctuated by the use of the drug Ecstasy, which can induce euphoria or hallucinations. The Gays feared their daughter might be unable to contact home.
Romney stepped in and committed Bain's resources to help with the search.
"I said let's close the firm, let's close the company – we were in Boston – and let's all of us fly down to New York and try to find her," Romney recalled recently when ask about the incident at a rally in Ohio this month. "So we closed the business, we went home and packed our things."
The search ultimately led to a home in New Jersey where Melissa was found safe. Soon she was back with her family.
As Romney, now a Republican presidential candidate, explained it, his decision at Bain was what anyone would have done.
His recounting at the campaign event was one of the few times has spoken publicly about the matter.
But his political campaigns and allies have not hesitated to highlight the story at critical times as he has looked to sell himself to voters as a can-do leader and manager who takes charge in a crisis and gets results.
In this, his second presidential race, Romney's campaign has been built around the notion that the nation needs a president with deep experience in the private and public sectors. He has highlighted both his work as a businessman and his efforts turning around the financially troubled Salt Lake City Olympics. He has focused less on his four-year term as Massachusetts governor.
The message he is trying to convey is that he is just the type of president needed for a country in economic turmoil.
During the GOP nomination fight in 2008, which Arizona Sen. John McCain won, Romney's campaign ran a TV ad that featured an interview with Robert Gay, who credited Romney with helping rescue his daughter.
"My 14-year-old daughter had disappeared in New York City for three days. No one could find her. My business partner stepped forward to take charge. He closed the company and brought almost all our employees to New York. He said, `I don't care how long it takes. We're going to find her.'" Gay said in the ad.
"He set up a command center and searched through the night. The man who helped save my daughter was Mitt Romney. Mitt's done a lot of things that people say are nearly impossible. But for me, the most important thing he's ever done is to help save my daughter."
Four years later, Romney tops the GOP field in the delegate count so far and is on pace to win the nomination. But he has struggled to convince Republican voters, who seem split over whether to demand ideological purity in their leaders, that he is the right nominee for the times.
Enter a new ad about Melissa's search. It's by Restore Our Future, a super political action committee run by former Romney advisers. The commercial features the same interview with Gay.
These days, Robert and Lynette Gay have had little to say about the massive search in the years since they retrieved their daughter.
"That was a long time ago and she's gotten on with her life," Lynette Gay told The Associated Press when reached by telephone last week.
When the Gays sought help, those who worked at Bain Capital at the time recall Romney wasting little time shutting down the venture capital firm, gathering up as many volunteers as he could and racing to Manhattan.
"When Mitt heard that, he felt we should do everything we could to help," said Bob White, a longtime friend and founding partner of Bain Capital who advises the presidential candidate.
Romney set up a command center at the LaGuardia Airport Marriott hotel to help coordinate the search.
"We set up a headquarters. We met with the detectives from the New York City Police Department," Romney recalled. "We hired a private investigating firm to help guide us through this process."
The firm also pulled in as many favors as they could from companies they had worked with over the years.
They got printers R. R. Donnelly to produce thousands of fliers with a picture of Melissa and persuaded the pharmacy chain Duane Reade to put the fliers in customers' bags as they checked them out.
They enlisted volunteers from financial firms such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Price Waterhouse to widen the search.
"We contacted our law firm in New York and said we need some lawyers to go out with us to walk the street and look for her," Romney said. "Then we contacted our accounting firm. We said we need some accountants to go out and walk the streets with us."
By day the volunteers scoured the streets, handing out fliers, talking to runaways and trying to track down any leads they could. The longer it took to track down Melissa, the slimmer the chances that she would be found, police told them.
Marc Wolpow, then a managing director at Bain Capital, had grown up in New York and felt comfortable helping coordinate the search through all parts of the city.
"I do recall that Mitt jumped in and lead by example, so that everyone else at Bain Capital was eager to lend a hand," Wolpow said.
As the search continued, Robert Gay told reporters that Melissa had left her home in Ridgefield, Conn., and headed for New York City without telling her parents.
Gay said her daughter arranged for a young man the couple had never met to pick her up. The two met another person; all three eventually ended up at the rave on Randall's Island.
After the party, Melissa and the two young men, age 17 and 19, "crashed-out" under the Whitestone Bridge, Gay said
"The two fellows said they last saw her Sunday morning leaving with some other people," Gay told Newsday at the time. "What I can't understand is how the two of them could have taken her to the concert and then run off."
The searches extended deep into the night as the volunteers wandered through the city's parks and ventured into the Manhattan's late night club scene.
"So there we were, a bunch of folks in suits walking around in the parks of New York and in the streets and showing pictures, and saying – when we saw teenagers – `Have you seen this girl?'" Romney said.
"After a day or two of that it made the news there are all these guys walking around asking kids if they'd seen a picture of this young lady – guys in suits and briefcases," he added.
The local media began running stories focused on the image of buttoned-down financial analysts wandering the city's grittier neighborhoods. It was the break Romney and the rest of the volunteers had been seeking.
After three television stations picked up the story, a call came into a hotline.
According to Romney, the caller asked if there was a reward and then hung up. Police were able to trace the call to a home in Montville, N.J., where they discovered Melissa.
Hours later she was reunited with her parents.