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JOAN VENNOCHI

Romney: rethinking reelection?

MITT ROMNEY is running for president. But, first, will he seek reelection as governor?

Back in December, Governor Romney told the Globe's Frank Phillips, "Plan on it." That was widely interpreted as "yes" -- Romney would definitely run for governor in 2006. Now, the statement is being reinterpreted as "maybe."

"It doesn't have the feel of a gear-up to run for reelection," says Peter Blute, a radio talk show host and a former Bay State Republican congressman. "I don't see it yet," says Blute, in reference to what the average gubernatorial candidate for reelection would be doing: "moving around the state, making major speeches on the tough issues."

Increasingly, Romney's focus lies outside Massachusetts. The governor is taking high-profile positions on national issues, and he is doing it with an eye toward cultivating a national candidacy.

For Romney, the political calculation regarding the decision to seek reelection comes down to whether winning a second term as governor helps his bid for national office.

Plus, there is another calculation: What if he runs for reelection and loses?

"One of the things that shocked me and I know shocked Governor Romney, is how much the Republican candidates were dismissed in the last election," says Blute. "We have, arguably, become bluer than ever before. . . . This state is tough for Republicans." In the 2004 election cycle, 28 Senate seats and 91 House seats were contested. Despite Romney's best efforts to campaign and raise money for fellow Republicans, his party lost one of seven seats in the Senate and two of 22 seats in the House.

Adds Blute: "I think he could run and win if he flexed his muscle. . . . But he has to run hard."

Michael S. Dukakis used a landslide victory in 1986 and the platform of the "Massachusetts Miracle" to launch a bid for his party's 1988 presidential nomination. Even if he beats a Democrat in 2006, the formula doesn't work quite the same way for Romney. He faces different political challenges at home and in red state America.

When Dukakis and more recently, Senator John Kerry sought national office, friendly Massachusetts Democrats did all they could to help their cause. Romney must contend with an unfriendly Legislature and a lineup of challengers that is likely to include two well-known, popular Democrats: Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly and Secretary of State William F. Galvin.

Beyond Massachusetts, Romney faces a world hostile to this blue state enclave. To help two Bushes reach the White House, the GOP generated a great deal of anti-Massachusetts sentiment. The phrase "Massachusetts liberal" became a pejorative when George Herbert Walker Bush ran against Dukakis in 1988; 15 years later, George W. Bush used it to hurt Kerry in their 2004 matchup.

Because they have to be palatable to Massachusetts liberals, Bay State Republicans have a tough time garnering respect from conservatives who dominate their party. To run for governor in 2002, Romney played up his moderate credentials. For example, after telling a Salt Lake City newspaper he preferred not to be labeled "prochoice," he returned to Massachusetts as a gubernatorial candidate and insisted that he is "prochoice" -- personally opposed to abortion, but in support of basic Roe v. Wade abortion rights. Now, Romney is tacking further right on issues such as same-sex marriage and stem cell research.

It is unlikely he will reveal his true intentions anytime soon. Political lame ducks are not happy ducks. But the uncertainty over his plans presents an unpleasant dilemma for the Bay State's already weak GOP. There is no obvious Romney-like candidate for '06, ready to leap from saving a winter Olympics in Utah to leading the charge against Democrats in Massachusetts.

If Romney does not run, the list of possible GOP candidates usually includes Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey; Charles D. Baker, a former Weld administration official and the current president and CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care; and White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr., a Holbrook native and onetime member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Card lost a bid to be the Massachusetts GOP gubernatorial nominee in 1982.

Says Blute: "The best scenario for the Republican Party in Massachusetts is for Mitt Romney to run for reelection and run hard, to make the case, here are the issues of the future."

The best scenario for the Republican party in Massachusetts may not be the best scenario for Romney. For Romney, it's all about priorities -- his own.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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