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SCOT LEHIGH

Is Romney running against Bay State?

WATCHING Mitt Romney in Washington yesterday, you couldn't escape this thought: The governor is shrewdly advancing his national ambitions by defining himself against the very state he governs. Just a few days ago, it was John Kerry who was Romney's foil. Both Romney and Lieutenant Governor Healey suggested that Kerry should resign as a US senator because campaigning for president has led him to skip scores of votes in Washington. Their call aided an effort by the national Republican campaign to advance the issue of Kerry's missed votes and thus embarrass the Democrats' presumptive nominee. Yesterday, Romney was in Washington warning the Senate Judiciary Committee that a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage was needed because of activist judges in Massachusetts.

"By the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, our state has begun to assert power over all the other states," Romney warned. "It is a state infringing on the powers of other states." (Stop us before we adjudicate again!)

Then there came the sort of exchange with US Senator Ted Kennedy that a Republican with national ambitions can only relish. Now, Kennedy and Romney are old rivals; Romney challenged Kennedy back in 1994, and in that year's pivotal debate, the consensus was that a cagey Kennedy beat Romney, who seemed to freeze under the pressure of a sharp counterattack from the senior senator.

Not yesterday. Kennedy started the exchange by noting that he and Romney had a good working relationship, but the senator soon seemed less intent on soliciting Romney's view on gay marriage than in catching him in a contradiction.

That's understandable. Democrats are indignant because congressional Republicans are clearly trying to tee up gay marriage, a concept unpopular in much of the country, as a pivotal election issue. In large part, that's an effort to embarrass Kerry, whose opposition to gay marriage and a federal constitutional amendment to forbid it -- while supporting a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex unions in Massachusetts -- is a complex and uncomfortable position.

Kennedy began his exchange with Romney by saying that he was old enough to recall crucial court decisions advancing the cause of civil rights and privacy rights. And he reminded Romney that six of the seven justices on the Supreme Judicial Court were appointed by Republicans.

So far, so good. But then Kennedy overstepped. Noting that Romney supported a state constitutional amendment that, while banning gay marriage, would mandate civil unions in Massachusetts, the senator demanded to know how he could also support a federal constitutional amendment that said that neither the federal nor any state constitution "shall be construed to require" civil unions for gays.

"If this prohibits, which it does, civil unions . . . how can you have it both ways?" Kennedy demanded.

"I didn't come to provide constitutional legal interpretation . . . but given the fact that I struggled through law school and remember some of it, I will give a try," Romney replied. "That paragraph says neither this constitution nor the constitution of any state shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidence thereof be conferred upon any union . . . It doesn't say that it is prohibited." That, the governor explained, was in keeping with his own view that the decision on civil unions should be left up to the states.

It was an effective moment. So, too, Romney's appearance -- at least the part that was televised locally -- struck me as effective for a governor intent on raising his profile among Republicans. Overall, he came off as bright, articulate, unflappable, and able to think on his feet. And though I disagree with Romney on gay marriage, I don't doubt that his opposition is sincere.

However, it has also become increasingly apparent that the governor is willing to play national politics not only with that issue, but with any number of others as he goes about his national image-making.

All of which raises these questions. Can Romney be an effective governor by continually taking on the culture and candidate of the state he leads? Or will Massachusetts voters eventually grow tired of watching their chief executive raise his national profile at the state's expense?

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com. 

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