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SCOT LEHIGH

What is Romney focused on?

WASHINGTON
ONE CAN certainly see why Mitt Romney is enjoying a spate of national attention. He's tall, he's telegenic, and he's an engaging speaker.

It's true that with only 18 months under his belt as governor -- a period that has been the accomplishment equivalent of lean cuisine -- the insights he offers when speaking to out-of-state audiences are mostly from his time as Winter Olympics chief. Or as a business Bainiac.

Still, those observations can be telling. Addressing the National Press Club on Wednesday, Romney noted that during his years in the private sector he had labored long to isolate the principal reason companies foundered.

"The answers surprised me," Romney said. "It was that companies failed because of lack of focus."

Now, we journalists are sometimes accused of the same shortcoming, and so it was that as Romney continued on, I found myself snagged on that thought.

Focus. It's an important concept, certainly -- worthy of one of those melodramatic motivational posters a can-do CEO might order from the SkyMall catalogue.

Focus on Romney's Wednesday sojourn to Washington, for example, and you just might arrive at this question: If one is the governor of a state about to host a huge national convention in the age of terrorism and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is in town to meet with top state and local officials -- and you've been invited to participate -- what does it reveal about your priorities that you are in Washington, holding forth on presidential politics?

Further, what does it say when a man who has been governor for all of a year and a half seems drawn like a moth to the national flame -- all the while insisting he is simply responding to invitations to speak or critique?

There's nothing unusual about seeing a Massachusetts politician yearning to strut upon a larger stage, of course. In the last 25 years, Ted Kennedy, Mike Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, and John Kerry have all auditioned nationally. But all of them waited until they had at least a term or two and a few solid accomplishments to their credit.

Romney, of course, offers the usual coy quasi-denials of any ambitions beyond the state's borders. His own job is "so overwhelmingly consuming" he hasn't thought about what comes next, insisted the man who lately seems to arrive in Washington about as often as the US Airways Shuttle.

Yet the signs are there. Confidants believe that Romney would someday like to run nationally, and there can no longer be any doubt that he is intent on dramatically raising his national profile.

Here's another obvious indicator: the way Romney is approaching John Kerry's candidacy. Confronted with a national campaign by a Democrat from his own state, a Republican officeholder like Romney has several choices.

He could play the political gentleman, making it clear he supports the Republican incumbent while being gracious about Kerry. That's what John McCain, faced with a campaign between a Democratic nominee he likes and a president of his own party, has done.

Or he might comport himself the way Bill Weld did in 1992. Although Weld campaigned for George H.W. Bush and critiqued Bill Clinton's record, he refused to adopt the ridiculous GOP mantra that Clinton was "the failed governor of a small Southern state." Instead, he kept his rhetoric so measured that Clinton later could dismiss it as political bygones and try to make Weld his ambassador to Mexico.

But on Wednesday, Romney chose to launch a sharp, attention-grabbing broadside, contending that Kerry is an inveterate shilly-shallier too conflicted from fear of offending his party's powerful constituency groups to be president.

Why would Romney do that? Well, it obviously ingratiates him with the Bush-Cheney team while earning him chits among national Republicans.

A second reason is less apparent: A Kerry loss would bolster Romney's own prospects of running nationally. "If Kerry wins, it makes it much more difficult, if not impossible, for Romney to run in 2008," says one Republican strategist watching the Massachusetts governor closely. "It would be awfully hard to run for president taking on a sitting president from your own state."

Thus Romney's campaign caricature of Kerry is understandable behavior from an ambitious pol who seems to have contracted a bad case of Potomac Fever.

But it's hardly what you'd expect from a man who purports to be focused on what he was elected to do: that is, being the best possible chief executive for Massachusetts.

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

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