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SCOT LEHIGH

Where's Romney leading recruits?

FOR SHEER drama, you couldn't beat it.

"Let me introduce to you the reform team of Massachusetts," Mitt Romney intoned. With that, the curtain behind the governor suddenly dropped, revealing row upon row of Republican candidates arrayed on bleachers in the cavernous Park Plaza function room.

As political theater goes, the event was a winner, driving home an unmistakable point: Romney is serious about trying to make Massachusetts a two-party state. According to the Republican Party, Romney's GOP will field candidates in 121 legislative races this fall. Given that there are 160 House districts and 40 Senate seats, that might not seem like a huge accomplishment, but it certainly dwarfs recent party efforts.

Subtract Republican incumbents and it means the party will have 106 new candidates running in 96 districts. By way of comparison, the party had only 54 challengers in 2002 -- and fewer than that in each of the three previous elections. Indeed, the last time the GOP fielded as strong a slate of candidates was 1990, when 118 new Republican hopefuls ran.

The fiscal crisis of that era helped propel the party to 16 seats in the Senate -- and, for two years, gave the GOP the votes to uphold Bill Weld's veto. The governor would be delighted to return to the days when a veto would stick, though Republic officials concede it's an uphill battle. "We'd love to do that in one cycle, but it is extremely unlikely to happen," says Dominick Ianno, the GOP's executive director.

In an odd juxtaposition, the spirited Republican rally comes at a time of serious speculation in GOP ranks that Romney himself may not be a candidate for reelection in 2006. "I'm sure he's not running again," asserts one Republican legislator, who is convinced the governor plans to serve out his current term, then launch a presidential campaign aimed at 2008. (A John Kerry victory would complicate, though not preclude, such plans.) Romney isn't working the hustings or traveling the state the way a candidate for reelection would, this person insists.

Nonsense, say Romney's advisers, who note that the governor has already designated the two politicos, Spencer Zwick and Alex Dunn, who will lead his reelection effort.

But is Romney thinking about a national run at some point? "Like any person of great accomplishment who believes in public service, I think he'd like to test the waters sometime, but right now the only thing on his radar screen is to run for reelection as governor," says Charley Manning, a long-time Romney adviser. Let's take that as a yes.

Back to the Republican electioneering efforts. The hope: To cast the Republican Party as a vehicle of reform, arguing that if Romney's thwarted plans were passed, they would free up tens of millions for social programs.

Those include proposals to consolidate the court system; to streamline public contracting; to merge the Turnpike Authority and the Highway Department; to facilitate the firing of teachers in underperforming schools; and to keep public employees from ballooning their pensions via atypical end-of-career earnings. (Whether those are long overdue changes or ill-considered schemes is a debate for another day.)

Returning the state income tax to 5 percent will be another bedrock Republican cause, while the GOP challengers hope to make electoral hay from legislative votes to dilute the English-immersion ballot law and to give Speaker Thomas Finneran pay-raise-granting power. And, though party chairman Darrell Crate says the GOP doesn't intend to run on social issues, others say both gay marriage and the death penalty may emerge as issues. Now, Romney and his Republicans could find considerable tension between his various agenda items. Suburban voters who might well back his government reforms may balk at efforts to reverse gay marriage or restore the death penalty. Or, they might appreciate Romney's determination to weather the recent budget problems without a tax increase, but agree with Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Michael Widmer that the Legislature shouldn't rush into another bout of tax cutting until the state bolsters hard-pressed public budgets.

But as Tuesday's sudden drop of the curtain made clear, the overall debate will be joined in a way it hasn't been for years. All of which has Massachusetts Democrats eyeing Romney with grudging respect for his political efforts, mingled with a determination not to be outdone.

"They did a good job recruiting those folks," says Phil Johnston, the Democratic State Committee chairman. "And now we have to do a good job of beating them."'

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

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