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SCOT LEHIGH

Romney's turn to shine -- or fall

THIS WEEK marks a new departure for Mitt Romney as he contemplates a national campaign. If all goes as planned, the governor will be elected chairman of the Republican Governors Association when GOP chief executives meet in Carlsbad, Calif., for a three-day confab.

That post will impart distinct advantages, but with them will come new challenges.

On the plus side, the position Romney is set to assume will give him a magic carpet to float around the country next year helping Republican gubernatorial candidates, collecting chits, and boosting his own national standing as he does.

By the time the 2006 campaigns are joined, Romney will likely have taken himself out of the Bay State electoral fray. That announcement may be delayed until the state healthcare debate is over. But close observers still expect Romney to say that he won't run again here, a declaration that will signal his interest in seeking the presidency in 2008.

If so, having a post like the Governors Association chairmanship will be a decided boon. And yet, the new role won't be without its perils.

Start locally. Romney enjoys little by way of genuine good will on Beacon Hill, so even if he isn't on the ballot here next year, Democrats may take a certain pleasure in portraying him as an absentee governor. Nor are they the only ones with a motive for mischief. Last year the governor delighted in rolling rhetorical barrels at US Senator John Kerry during his presidential campaign. Kerry's allies haven't forgotten, and with the senator himself hoping to run again in 2008, his camp may well see turnabout as fair play.

But for Romney, the bigger challenge will be finding his footing in a polarized national landscape. The Governors Association job may force Romney to begin to define what sort of presidential candidate he would be.

''It's the beginning of the beginning," says one adviser.

To date, Romney has tried to portray himself as a results-oriented analytical manager locally, often sidestepping divisive national issues. And yet, he has also taken pains to avoid stands that would offend the Republican right wing nationally. We've seen evidence of that on matters from stem cell research to tax loophole closings to gay marriage to abortion. On the last, a man who once said his support for abortion rights dated back to his mother's 1970 campaign for the US Senate announced in July that he currently considers himself prolife.

As Governors Association chief, Romney will find himself under greater pressure to comment on a wider range of national issues, particularly if he becomes a regular guest on national public affairs shows.

That will present a difficult question: Should he distance himself from his party's unpopular national leader or defend the president, whose fund-raising prowess will prove important to the Republican Governors Association?

One particular area where that question is likely to obtain is Iraq. Romney has seen firsthand just how highly charged such issues can be: His father, Michigan Governor George Romney, had his own 1968 presidential ambitions founder over his comment that he had been brainwashed about the Vietnam War.

With political candidates likely to be jousting over whether, or how rapidly, to draw down US forces, those matters will be much in the news, making them hard to avoid for the man heading the GOP's gubernatorial election effort.

As Romney mulls how to comport himself on the national stage, he should recall that in 2000, George W. Bush got a major boost from his fellow Republican governors, who looked to the then Texas governor as a pragmatic figure who would put a more attractive face on the party than the ideologues who had spent the 1990s engaged in rancorous battles with Bill Clinton in Washington.

With the administration's policies now out of favor and the party's congressional wing unpopular, the GOP may be seeking a fresh, less partisan face in 2008.

Right now, however, the Republican presidential hopeful who seems most ready to speak his maverick mind on issues he considers important is the same figure who battled Bush for the Republican nomination in 2000: Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Romney, by contrast, has seen his own reputation as an independent-minded manager muddied as he's struck stands seemingly designed to pander to the litmus tests of the Republican right wing.

Which is why, if he's to reinforce the strengths of his own story line, the governor needs to use his national tour as Republican Governors Association chief to demonstrate that he's his own man.

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

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