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Romney walking political tightrope

Governor Mitt Romney's entrance into national politics is forcing him to walk a careful political path, as he delivers out-of-state speeches that critique Massachusetts and its perceived liberal excesses while he pledges to pass an ambitious agenda with the help of newly wary Beacon Hill Democrats.

Over the last several weeks, Romney has alternated between offering to work with Beacon Hill Democrats to expand healthcare and improve poorly performing schools, and then using the state's liberal social policies and its one-party dominance as the butt of political jokes.

Running against Massachusetts helped President George W. Bush and his father, both Texans, win White House races against Governor Michael S. Dukakis and US Senator John F. Kerry. But because Romney leads the state he is critiquing, his rhetoric is raising eyebrows at home, where politicians and business leaders alike are turning to him to help tackle issues such as healthcare and education and to revive the state's economy.

''Personally, I'm not excited about it. I don't think it helps. It reinforces the perception that we're a difficult place to do business," said Brian Gilmore of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, who said he was speaking for himself because his organization has not taken an official position on the governor's remarks. ''We have a perception problem in the national marketplace -- why add fuel to that?"

Now, as Romney heads into a reelection campaign for governor in 2006 and possibly a bid for the GOP presidential nomination, strategists say using the state as a foil won't be enough to win votes -- he will need to point to examples of successful leadership. Garrison Nelson, a political scientist at the University of Vermont, said Romney would need to impress presidential primary voters with his Massachusetts accomplishments, rather than explain that he fought valiant but unsuccessful fights with Democrats to cut income taxes or reinstitute the death penalty.

''If you say, 'I was governor, but I failed,' you don't have the track record to show you'll be a successful president," Nelson said.

On Beacon Hill, Romney has often argued that Massachusetts is out of step with the rest of the nation on issues such as same-sex marriage, welfare, capital punishment, and unemployment insurance. In recent weeks, he has taken that message on the road, poking fun at the Bay State in front of conservative audiences in Missouri, South Carolina, and Utah, and comparing himself to ''a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention."

Romney's out-of-state remarks are being dismissed as harmless political talk by some lawmakers, but they have caused grumbling among a few members of his own party. A well-known Republican said the governor's anti-Massachusetts speeches can't help with voters back home: ''It's inelegant at best. He hasn't even sealed the deal with the Commonwealth."

But Romney's strategy won't do him any harm in the national context, according to some Republicans outside the state. They say Romney shouldn't mind being criticized within the Bay State for his views on such hot-button issues as gay marriage or stem-cell research, since his positions are more in line with the majority of Republican primary voters.

''I can tell you, he is never going to win the gay vote," said Joe Cannon, chairman of the Utah Republican Party and a longtime friend of Romney's. ''He's never going to win the vote of the people who are generally sympathetic with that. But as a general rule, the more he gets bashed by gay advocates, the better that is for him in terms of electoral politics."

''Just keep in mind delegates from red states and where they are on this issue, and it's going to be 90-10, if not 95-5, which is all that matters for Mitt Romney," Cannon added.

Romney spokeswoman Shawn Feddeman said the governor simply has been highlighting Republicans' minority status in Massachusetts, not bashing his home state. She added that, ''the issues the governor speaks about are issues the people of Massachusetts elected him on -- lower taxes, bringing back the death penalty, opposition to gay marriage."

''The governor loves Massachusetts. He moved here at a young age with his wife, and he raised his family here. He's lived her for over 30 years. This is his home," she said. ''He always talks up Massachusetts wherever he is. He holds economic development meetings across the country trying to convince businesses to relocate here."

Since his campaign for governor, Romney has cast himself as an outsider fighting waste and patronage on Democrat-dominated Beacon Hill. He frequently pushes his proposals by portraying the state and its policies -- many of them put in place by a succession of Democratic legislatures and moderate Republican governors -- as national aberrations.

He has noted, for example, that the state's unemployment insurance benefits are the most generous in the nation, and he has made a similar argument about the state's welfare benefits. In each case, he has proposed tougher restrictions, but so far the Legislature has not backed his plans. He is also expected to propose a death penalty statute, highlighting Massachusetts' standing as one of about a dozen states without capital punishment.

If Romney does try to turn anti-Massachusetts sentiment to his political advantage in a national race, he will be tapping a deep vein that runs through almost all of American history, according to Nelson.

Nelson said that the Massachusetts Bay Colony invited scrutiny and criticism as soon as Boston proclaimed itself ''a City on a Hill." But the modern perception of Massachusetts being out of step with the rest of the country dates from 1972, when it was the only state to vote for Democrat George McGovern over Richard Nixon.

In the 1988 presidential race, George H.W. Bush erased a large Dukakis lead in part by portraying the Bay State governor as a typical Massachusetts liberal who was soft on crime. George W. Bush repeated the strategy last year, frequently noting that it was a Massachusetts court that had legalized gay marriage and mocking Kerry as a tax-and-spend liberal.

''Only a liberal senator from Massachusetts would say that a 49 percent increase in funding for education was not enough," Bush said during the third presidential debate.

In last fall's legislative elections, GOP strategists hoped to swell the Republican ranks on Beacon Hill by portraying Democrats as obstacles to reform -- in a sense, turning Romney's legislative defeats into victories at the polls. But the GOP lost badly, and the governor appeared to be taking a different, more collegial tack with the Democrats until his recent speeches and his announcement that he opposed certain embryonic stem-cell research.

Paul Guzzi, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said that he hasn't heard his members complain about the governor's out-of-state speeches, and that his recent remarks are ''not nearly as important as what gets done here in Massachusetts." And Senator Robert A. Antonioni, the Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature's Joint Education Committee, said he doesn't think many of his colleagues will become ''hot and bothered" by remarks they recognize as purely political.

But Romney's recent remarks and out-of-state trips seem to have energized at least some Democrats and Democratic-leaning interest groups, who last week began highlighting his stances on abortion and other hot-button social issues.

On Friday alone, Romney took heat on four distinct issues. Abortion-rights groups assailed him for amending legislation that sought to expand the use of federal abstinence-education funds. Kerry and his fellow Democrat, US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, wrote a letter to Romney imploring him to fight President Bush's plans to slash federal funding to Massachusetts cities. Gay-rights supporters protested outside his office over his stance on same-sex marriage and civil unions. And a local labor union called him a ''flip-flopper" for vetoing retroactive pay raises for University of Massachusetts workers after giving such raises to senior staff members. Fair or not, the state's Democratic Party chairman said the message to Romney was clear: Choose between the Bay State and the red states.

''Romney has put himself between a rock and a hard place because he is trying to pursue two incompatible strategies: To run for reelection in a socially progressive state, and running a national campaign appealing to right-wing social conservatives," said state Democratic Party chairman Philip W. Johnston. ''I think it's virtually impossible to do both. Only a political genius could do both, and I don't know anyone who's accused Mitt Romney of being that."

Globe correspondents Michael Levenson and Janette Neuwahl contributed to this report.

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