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As Romney rips Kerry, Iowans see an audition

DES MOINES -- Governor Mitt Romney came to Iowa yesterday with a message from Massachusetts to the GOP faithful of this important swing state: Don't let his state's senator reach the White House.

Senator John F. Kerry lacks the resolve to be an effective president, Romney told a group of Republican activists at a fund-raiser last night. Only President Bush has the steadfastness to lead the nation in a time of uncertainty, he said, echoing sentiments he conveyed to a national audience at this summer's Republican National Convention.

''We need a strong leader like George W. Bush," Romney told reporters before his remarks at the fund-raiser. ''When the president, for instance, talks about big spenders from Massachusetts he's not talking about the 15 percent [of lawmakers who are] Republicans in the Legislature; he's talking about Mike Dukakis, Ted Kennedy, and John Kerry."

Romney was the keynote speaker at last night's annual Ronald Reagan Dinner in Des Moines, a $100-a-plate event for Republican Election Day turnout efforts. The speech capped a hectic three days of national stumping for Romney, who also made stops in Nevada, Missouri, Michigan, and Oklahoma with other GOP governors as part of the Republican Party's ''Leadership Matters" tour.

But while last night's speech was officially on behalf of the Bush-Cheney ticket, the buzz surrounding Romney's visit to Iowa's capital city was attached to the Massachusetts governor himself.

Forget for a moment the deadlocked race for this state's seven electoral votes: Some Iowans, with their first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, are already thinking about the 2008 election. The Republican activists who helped put together last night's event weren't under any illusions as to why Romney accepted their invitation, and they were eager to check him out. Local reporters also asked him several questions about his ambitions.

''Obviously, the beauty contest for 2008 has started," said Ted Sporer, chairman of the Republican Party in Polk County, which includes Des Moines and is the state's most populous county. ''People come out here to be seen. He seems like a very reasonable, sharp candidate, and he was able to win in a Democratic state. That's attractive to us, because we want to win."

Romney and his aides dismiss talk of a possible presidential run, saying the governor is entirely focused on serving Massachusetts. Romney has to worry about his own reelection, in 2006 -- not to mention more immediate efforts to elect more Republicans to the Legislature -- before he can think about setting his sights higher, they point out.

Still, the sniping from Bay State Democrats who say Romney is campaigning for the presidency has reached a steady hum.

The chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, Philip W. Johnston, was in Des Moines yesterday, to attend a Democratic fund-raiser a few blocks away and to respond to Romney in person.

''He's trying to trash John Kerry, and it shouldn't go unanswered," Johnston said. ''He's just jump-starting his own presidential campaign."

The Bush campaign has made eager use of Romney, who visited New Hampshire and Michigan for Bush earlier this year and delivered a prime-time speech at the Republican convention.

Scott Stanzel, a Bush campaign spokesman, said Romney is a valuable ally because he brings on-the-ground knowledge of Kerry's time in the US Senate.

''He is well-positioned to discuss John Kerry's out-of-the-mainstream record," Stanzel said.

Romney appears to be taking advantage of the opportunity in ways that coincide with his own political interests. The fund-raiser he attended Friday night for an Oklahoma congressman was a chance to reach out to cultural conservatives, who may be skeptical of the chances of a Republican from the Northeast in a national campaign.

Of course, there was yesterday's trip to Iowa, where the cultivation of local activists by ambitious politicians has become as much of a staple as the corn crop. Romney had his first meeting with some of the key players when he stopped by a breakfast meeting of the Iowa delegation to the Republican convention.

''You're killing two birds with one stone. You're doing good for others while doing good for yourself," Steve Roberts, Iowa's representative on the Republican National Committee, said of Romney's meetings with Iowans on behalf of the Bush-Cheney ticket. ''He's very articulate, and very able, and a very attractive candidate. He has the potential."

The attendees of last night's reception were many of the party faithful and donors who any candidate would need for a presidential run. Of course, Romney isn't the only politician to have realized that; Governor George Pataki of New York headlined the Reagan dinner last year and came back for a county GOP fund-raiser last month. Such big-name Republicans as Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York have also made recent appearances in Iowa.

''The people who come in here to speak are not a random sample of politicians. These are people who are at least contemplating their futures," said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. ''If you are going to run in the Iowa caucuses, these are the people to start with."

The Democrats' event, the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, a few blocks away, drew comedian and radio host Al Franken, actress Sharon Stone, and Kerry's daughter Vanessa.

Romney is starting the process of presidential exploration with a biography well-known in GOP circles.

A successful businessman, the son of a former Michigan governor who ran for president, and the man who shepherded the 2002 Winter Olympics, Romney appears presidential to some.

And as a man who managed to win as a Republican in the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts, Iowa Republicans are naturally interested in Romney, Sporer said.

Some even remember the televised debates from 1994, when Romney took on Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who is unpopular among Republicans.

''He was able to stand toe-to-toe with 'Trophy Head' -- that's what we call Ted Kennedy here," Sporer said, in a reference to Kennedy's prominent visage. ''We're very pleased to have him."

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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