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JOAN VENNOCHI

Romney to the rescue of the GOP?

THE GOP cup runneth over with corruption. Is it Mr. Clean to the rescue?

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney just took over as head of the Republican Governors Association. Coincidentally, Romney's new title became official in Carlsbad, Calif. -- a community that falls within the district that offered the country the latest in GOP sleaze. It was represented by Randy ''Duke" Cunningham, the Republican congressman who resigned in tears after pleading guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes.

Is that karma, or what?

Romney ran for governor as a straight-shooting, professional turnaround genius who saved the Salt Lake Winter Olympics from corruption, scandal, and financial disaster. His chief ideology in 2002 was fiscal conservative, a platform valued by Bay State voters seeking a chief executive who would stand up to a state Legislature dominated by Democrats. To run in Massachusetts, Romney fudged his stance on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. To correct that fuzziness for a national audience, he spent the last year marching to the right, per orders of Republican consultant Michael Murphy.

And now, as Romney works to carve out a plausible scenario for becoming his party's presidential nominee in 2008, he must be thinking the landscape looks familiar.

The jacket to Romney's book, ''Turnaround -- Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games," sets up this scenario for his 1999 rescue mission: ''Sullied by scandal, haunted by terrorist threats, on the brink of financial disaster, and with federal investigators, bankers, and the press at its door," the Salt Lake Organizing Committee begged the Bain Capital CEO to take over and run the games.

The idea of party leaders begging Romney to take over and lead a sullied GOP in 2008 may sound like a political consultant's secret fantasy; but the prospect of Republican primary voters settling on Romney as a savior is not implausible.

Of course, Romney has a long way to go before that happens. First, he must overcome his personal political liabilities. He is smart, handsome, and articulate, but so far devoid of any obvious passion or conviction save his own ambition. His accomplishents in Massachusetts are minimal, which is why he is desperate to broker healthcare legislation he can promote on the national campaign trail.

Then, there is the field of GOP challengers and how they play against the larger political landscape.

Currently, Senator John McCain of Arizona is the biggest name on the Republican side, and a favorite with the media, as well as with independent voters. But McCain's independence and outspokenness weaken him in his own party. Age could also be a factor; he will be 72 in the fall of 2008. And his continuing support for Bush administration policy regarding Iraq may ultimately undercut his cause.

Each presidential contest is a reaction to events that occurred during the administration that preceded it. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush beat John Kerry on national security credentials, false as they turned out to be. In 2000, Bush campaigned to ''restore integrity" after the scandals during Bill Clinton's administration. After Reaganomics, Clinton promised to focus ''like a laser beam" on the economy in 1992. Before that, Ronald Reagan pledged to ''make America great again" after Jimmy Carter's malaise.

In 2008, will the overriding issue be an unpopular Republican war or unpopular Republican corruption -- or some combination? And who, in either political party, will the electorate view as the appropriate antidote?

The future remains as unpredictable as ever. But it is possible voters will shun anyone with a Washington taint, along with anyone who had a hand and vote in bringing the country to war. That would make governors or former governors strong contenders, as they have been from Carter to Reagan, and from Clinton to Bush. (The first President Bush beat Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.) It would leave Washington insiders on both sides of the aisle in the sour company of other losing Beltway presidential candidates -- Kerry, Al Gore, and Bob Dole.

Meanwhile, war and scandal shadow the GOP. Top Republicans are under indictment -- House Majority Leader Tom Delay; I. Lewis ''Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney; and Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

This party needs an integrity transplant. There is a governor of Massachusetts who wrote one book on turnarounds and would love to write another.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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