Despite just two years in elected office, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is emerging as one of the early heavyweights in the fight for the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination. One reason might be a résumé that reads much like that of George W. Bush. Both men had famous fathers. Both are strong proponents of conservative family values and causes. And both went to Harvard Business School before plunging into business and sports.
Romney arguably outdid Bush in those two arenas, earning a fortune as CEO of venture-capital firm Bain Capital Inc. and then rescuing the scandal-plagued 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games. "This is a guy of extraordinary talents who is ready for the biggest challenges in the world," says Staples Inc. (SPLS ) founder Tom Stemberg, an ardent Romney supporter.
Maybe. But first, Romney must resolve an agonizing dilemma: whether to run for reelection in 2006 or devote his energies to a quest for the Presidency. That's a problem facing a number of other Presidential possibilities, including Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Governors Tom Vilsack (D-Iowa) and George E. Pataki (R-N.Y.). Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the Democratic front-runner, is also up for reelection next year but is considered a shoo-in.
For Romney and the others at risk, it's a high-stakes decision. Holding office gives a candidate instant credibility, visibility, and fund-raising prowess -- as then-Governor Bush demonstrated in 2000. But lose a reelection, and you're toast. Just three years ago, for example, Georgia Governor Roy E. Barnes saw his 2004 Presidential dreams disappear when he was upset for reelection by Republican Sonny Perdue.
Romney is in an especially tough position, simultaneously trying to govern liberal Massachusetts while courting the Republican base. Romney ran as a moderate reformer who downplayed his Mormon values. But to win the GOP Presidential nomination, he will have to woo evangelicals who have far-right views on taxes, gay rights, abortion, and other issues.
In fact, Romney is already in hot water. His speeches to the conservative faithful in key primary states such as South Carolina have been alienating voters at home. Romney's unfavorable ratings are up, and his job-approval numbers are down. "If he runs again, he will face a much tougher fight," promises Philip W. Johnston, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. Indeed, a new poll shows Romney trailing Attorney General Tom Reilly, the probable Democratic nominee, 49% to 40%.
Things could soon get a lot uglier. Romney is about to square off with the state legislature over embryonic stem-cell research. Senate President Robert Travaglini, a Democrat, predicts that in late March the legislature will pass his bill allowing so-called therapeutic cloning of stem cells. But Romney says such cloning would create a Brave New Nightmare in which "a genetically complete human being is brought into being...[and then] manipulated and experimented upon like so much research material." Although Romney supports some stem-cell research -- including the use of embryos created in in-vitro fertilization clinics -- he vows to veto Travaglini's bill.
That has put the governor at odds with the state's biotech industry and Harvard, which last year created a Stem Cell Institute. "Romney is sacrificing the economic future of Massachusetts and the health care of the American people on the altar of political expediency," charges Democratic activist Steve Grossman, president of Boston's MassEnvelopePlus.
Another showdown is looming on gay marriage, which became legal last year after a ruling by Massachusetts' highest court. This fall the legislature will decide whether to give voters a chance to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage but allow civil unions. Although polls show rising acceptance of gay marriage and civil unions, Romney says neither is acceptable.
Romney wins high marks from many execs as a reformer who tackled inefficiencies and patronage. "He has made major strides in bringing more professionalism to state government," says Stephen J. Adams, CEO of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank. Yet even business faults some of the governor's remarks to out-of-state Republicans.
Romney has said being a conservative in liberal Massachusetts is like being "a cattle rancher at a vegetarians' convention." He insists he meant no harm, but "that has not gone over well here," says Brian Gilmore, executive vice-president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the top business lobby. "People already have the perception that [this] is a difficult place to do business."
More troublesome to Romney's Presidential hopes is that one of his proudest accomplishments -- closing a $3 billion budget deficit without raising in- come or sales taxes -- is being undercut by complaints from business. Romney says that he raised revenues simply by "closing loopholes." But Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Assn., says that those "loopholes" added up to some $500 million. "That is a major tax increase," says Widmer, "and clearly a reversal of the progress made in shedding the 'Taxachusetts' image."
For now, Romney promises only that he'll decide whether to seek reelection by this fall. But most political observers are betting that he'll bow out. Like many of his potential competitors, Romney will probably conclude that he has to give up his day job to develop the fund-raising network and national organization he'll need to win the big job.
By William C. Symonds in Boston, with Richard S. Dunham in Washington