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SCOT LEHIGH

Romney's stem cell power plays

BY CONVENTIONAL measures, Mitt Romney had the kind of week a governor should dread. His bolt-from-the-blue position on stem cell research shocked fellow policymakers, put him at cross-purposes with the state's life-sciences community and its most prominent university, and brought a rebuke from Senator Ted Kennedy, a fierce promoter of economic endeavors in Massachusetts.

On Beacon Hill, Democrats have hardly been deterred by the governor's newly declared antipathy to so-called therapeutic cloning to create stem cells.

Attorney General Thomas Reilly, the early favorite for the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, quickly staked out an opposing stand, while Senate President Robert Travaglini has put his growing gravitas behind legislation that will allow the very process Romney opposes. After a marathon hearing on Wednesday, the Senate seems ready to push the bill to a speedy approval, and word is the House will follow suit.

If so, a gubernatorial adviser warns, they had better be able to rally a two-thirds vote. Translation: Romney would veto such a measure.

On the Senate side, Travaglini appears confident he has the votes to override; the House count is less certain, but the early bet is that the votes are there, too.

So why, even as they explore a possible noncloning compromise suggested by Stanford University ethicist William Hurlbut, do the governor and his team seem so unruffled by the controversy?

Well, assume for a moment that you are one Willard Mitt Romney. No, not Mild-Mannered Massachusetts Mitt but rather Wily Willard, his ambitious alter ego, the deft and dextrous doppelganger quietly eyeing a presidential run even as he supposedly moves toward a 2006 reelection campaign some advisers remain unconvinced he'll wage.

Oddly, on stem cells, the wily one may just win for losing. Why? Well, if Travaglini prevails, there's no long-term harm done; the state will end up with the public-policy framework scientists say is essential to make Massachusetts a research mecca. But wouldn't that spell a humiliating defeat for the governor?

Consider: In the past, the governor's political circle has secretly welcomed clashes with Beacon Hill Democrats, knowing that even in losing, Romney creates a narrative appealing to GOP primary voters: The outnumbered Republican governor of Massachusetts determinedly battling the liberal Democratic majority on behalf of conservative causes.

Now, it may be that Romney sincerely believes in his carefully calibrated stand of approving research on unwanted fertility-clinic embryos but rejecting the creation of new embryos just for science.

So before we leap to conclusions, let's look for other clues. Like, say, the gay marriage controversy.

No, Romney didn't seek the issue, but when the Supreme Judicial Court thrust it upon him, he took his opposition national, testifying before Congress and penning a column for The Wall Street Journal urging other states to ban gay marriage.

In the stem cell matter, Romney also highlighted his position in the national media -- in this case, announcing it in The New York Times.

That was revealing behavior for a governor who has signaled that he wants better relations with legislative leaders. Indeed, Travaglini didn't learn of Romney's objection until the Times article.

But if his stem-call stance has been unpopular with the state's scientific community, it has won Romney strong reviews in the conservative media. First came a positive piece in the National Review online.

There followed an interview with and a favorable column from Cal Thomas, the erstwhile Moral Majoritarian and now conservative columnist, and an interview and plaudits from The Weekly Standard's online edition. On Tuesday, the governor made a call-in appearance to discuss the issue with conservative talk-radio host Laura Ingraham.

In long years of taking stands tailored to their state, Democrats Mike Dukakis and John Kerry clearly hurt their national chances. Comfortable locally, Bill Weld's social liberalism rendered him persona non grata with a wide swath of the national Republican Party.

Not Romney. While he's hardly in lockstep with the right, the governor has taken pains to avoid stands that will disqualify him nationally. And in doing so, he has won national notice for standing in opposition to Massachusetts Democrats.

For him, the real danger may be local. Even if one believes his position heartfelt, Romney looks out of synch with his state.

And if you judge his stance political? Well, then the governor has certainly opened himself to the charge that he is playing politics with the state's future prospects. If he runs for reelection, that is.

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

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