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Romney's shortcut

WHEN IT comes to the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney is an intriguing prospect. Smart, articulate, and telegenic, he's a governor in a race where victory usually goes to CEOs.

Add to his pluses proximity to first-in-the-nation New Hampshire, a name with Republican resonance, and pockets whose depths, even if they don't contain a ketchup fortune, still rival that of the deep blue sea.

Granted, Romney is something less than a natural at grip-and-grin retail politics, and he occasionally exhibits an ear right out of the 1950s (I'd deep-six the joke about the wily old farmer who pretends he's feeding an alligator in order to scare some naked coeds out of a swimming hole).

At first glance, he nevertheless measures up well against the other Republicans likely to join the race. Even those across the ideological aisle acknowledge his potential.

''He definitely belongs on any short list of serious candidates because of all the assets he brings," says John Sasso, the nationally respected Massachusetts politico who served as John Kerry's on-the-plane campaign manager for the last two months of the campaign.

So if he does run, Romney should be a candidate to keep your eye on. But will he do as well in practice as he does on paper? In the last month or so, certainly, Romney has looked pretty clumsy.

Go to the dog track and you'll occasionally see an inventive canine who, having stumbled and fallen behind the leaders, decides he'll get a leg up on the pack and lop a lap off the chase by loping back to ambush the mechanical rabbit when next he circles by. In the excitement of the moment it no doubt seems like a good plan, but alas, it never ends well, providing further proof that (as the poet should have said) the best laid schemes of mutts and men often go astray.

And that's what the Mittster has resembled lately. In his excitement, he's left a lap out.

What Romney is still short on is big-ticket legislative accomplishments. Yes, his strategists think they can spin gold from the meta-narrative of an outnumbered governor gamely battling for the Republican way in Democratic Massachusetts. Perhaps. But what Romney could really use right now is to beef up his legislative record.

The word from the administration is that 2005 is a year to focus on getting things done.

Make no mistake, the governor has plans. There is, for example, the scheme for cheaper health insurance he outlined in mid-February, the carefully designed job creation initiative he unveiled to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce two weeks ago, and an education package still being finalized.

That's an interesting agenda -- but one that will require the applied force of gubernatorial power to enact. Yet by auditioning nationally so early, Romney has spilled precious drams of that priceless elixir.

So obvious are his national ambitions that, with his team acknowledging it's one run or the other, there's now widespread doubt he'll seek reelection.

Here's the problem: If the Legislature thinks you're headed for the door, everyone takes you less seriously. Further, almost everything Romney now says or does will be seen in the context of presidential politics, making it far easier to dismiss.

This week, even Republicans were deserting him in droves on veto votes. The state Senate, meanwhile, hopes to deal the governor an early defeat, then seize the agenda-setting role.

Then there's his eroded standing with the public. By tacking symbolically starboard in his out-of-state appearances, Romney has lost some support in Massachusetts. A UMass-Lowell poll done just before his presidential exploration showed him with a very solid 61/36 percent approval rating, though slightly behind (41 to 45 percent) Attorney General Thomas Reilly in a gubernatorial matchup. Now, a new Boston Globe poll pegs his personal rating at only 52/37 percent and shows him losing by 7 points (41 to 48 percent) to Reilly.

The better strategy would have been to spend winter, spring, summer, and part of fall pressing for legislative accomplishments then to start his national explorations sometime in late autumn. What, after all, is the hurry? The next presidential campaign won't begin in earnest until after the 2006 elections.

Instead, Romney rushed the season. In so doing, he has hurt his chances of getting things done here at home, things that could add a problem-solving polish to his national appeal.

Unless, that is, he can find a way to make up his (almost) lost lap.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is

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