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SCOT LEHIGH

Romney vs. Kerry in 2008?

IN SOME ways, the next presidential election seems as distant as Mars. And yet it's already starting to dawn on the political world that three years hence, Massachusetts may become one of the historically rare states to field not just one White House hopeful, but two.

Although US Senator John Kerry says publicly that it's too early to think about 2008, longtime Kerry watchers say he clearly wants to run a second time.

''There's no doubt in my mind that he wants to do it again," says one person who knows him well.

''I think he is likely to run again," agrees Democratic State Committee Chairman Phil Johnston.

Kerry obviously hopes to style himself as a leader on important Democratic issues -- so much so that his political advisers met last week to plot the themes the senator should stress on his ''Meet the Press" appearance last Sunday.

Kerry's reemergence on national television comes in the same week as the news that a political-action committee has been sprinkling tens of thousands of dollars about the country to sow good will for Governor Mitt Romney. And that Romney will speak in South Carolina, an important early primary state, next month.

Romney's team, which has long acted as though the governor's rising national profile was merely the happy confluence of coincidental currents of curiosity, courtesy, and charity, predictably downplays the significance of the Commonwealth PAC.

Still, advisers are no longer as coy as they were even a few months ago about the notion of Romney seeking the presidency in 2008.

''I think the leadership of the Republican Party sees him on a fairly short list of serious candidates should he decide to go," says Mike Murphy, the well-known GOP consultant who advises Romney. ''There is a lot of interest in him."

Lest anyone think that's just Murphy puffing one of his possible presidential clients -- the Murphy roster also includes Arizona Senator John McCain, who clearly wants to run, and Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who says he doesn't -- consider this: In this week's issue, the Weekly Standard named Romney as the possible sleeper candidate in a Republican top tier that includes McCain, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Senate Majority Leader William Frist.

Romney's presidential stock may be undervalued in Democratic Massachusetts. He is, after all, a governor in a contest that favors executives; his successful stint as 2002 Winter Olympics chief adds to his luster; he is fabulously wealthy; and he not only looks the part, he is an accomplished communicator.

No mere neighbor to New Hampshire, Romney also owns a vacation home in the Granite State. His surname remains well known in Michigan, where his father was governor. As a Mormon, he is treated like a favorite son in Utah and has a latent base other places as well.

When he ascends to the chair of the Republican Governors Association next year, Romney will have political cover to travel the country.

But he must also navigate a minefield. If he runs for reelection as governor in 2006 -- and some doubts seem to linger even among his associates -- suspicions about his national ambitions may hurt his prospects of winning a second gubernatorial term.

Unlike Romney, Kerry's challenge isn't in making himself known, but in keeping himself relevant. On the plus side, Kerry has an enhanced ability to command headlines and raise money. And he hasn't suffered the sort of backlash Michael Dukakis and Al Gore did after their defeats.

Yet if there is no widespread anger over Kerry's loss, neither does there appear to be any particular appetite for a second campaign by a candidate without much of a common touch.

''There is a sense that he was a good candidate, but with limitations," says one national Democrat. ''There is no hostility or ill will, but people are moving on."

Further, if the Democrats did choose Kerry in 2008, at 64, he would be the party's oldest nominee since Harry Truman in 1948 (also 64) and its oldest nonincumbent standard-bearer since the 65-year-old James Buchanan in 1856, notes University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson.

Kerry and Romney have barely spoken since the election. Indeed, some Kerry partisans nurse deep anger at Romney, who campaigned hard not just for President Bush, but against Kerry.

Payback will come when and if Romney runs for reelection, several say.

If so, it will be the second round of a feud that may enliven -- and embitter -- Massachusetts politics for years to come.

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

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