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JOAN VENNOCHI

Mitt Romney's skeletons in the closet

BLAME IT on his cheatin' heart. It's divorce: Mitt Romney v. the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The former Massachusetts governor paints a picture of irreconcilable differences, but that's not the whole story.

Some guys break up via e-mail. Romney chose a television ad as the way to cut ties with the state he two-timed with a hotter date -- a White House run.

The ad's narrator darkly observes: "In the most liberal state in the country, one Republican stood up and cut spending, instead of raising taxes. He enforced immigration laws, stood up for traditional marriage and the sanctity of life." The candidate says: "This isn't the time for us to shrink from conservative principles."

No matter what the ad states, Romney has a problem. There was a time when he did shrink from conservative principles -- it was when he was running for governor of Massachusetts. Once he started two-timing Massachusetts and running for president, he talked the conservative talk. But, back home, he didn't always walk the conservative walk.

For example, he went from protector of Roe v. Wade as a gubernatorial candidate to abortion opponent on the presidential campaign trail .

And, instead of raising taxes, Romney raised $700 million by increasing fees and closing corporate loopholes -- a practice corporations consider a tax increase.

When it comes to another claim in the ad -- enforcing immigration laws -- the Globe last year reported that the Massachusetts State Police relied on a company to clean its barracks and headquarters that employed scores of undocumented immigrants. During the Romney years, additional state contracts were going out to other companies employing illegal immigrants. Besides, Romney never questioned the citizenship of landscapers who tended his own front lawn. Instead, he yelled out a friendly "buenos dias" to crews that included illegal immigrants.

In the campaign ad, Romney flashes photos of Senator John F. Kerry and former governor Michael S. Dukakis, superimposed over a headline that mentions "Ted Kennedy"-- all reminders of the liberals who conservatives love to hate. Yet a year ago, Romney posed with Kennedy and a panoply of Democratic politicians in historic Faneuil Hall to celebrate a new law that not only guarantees healthcare for the uninsured -- it mandates it; imposes penalties on individuals who refuse to comply; and requires the state and business to pay for a portion of the coverage. That's conservative?

The good news for Romney?

The test for his presidential quest isn't going to be whether he is conservative enough.

The bad news?

The test is whether he is trustworthy enough. How much trust can Republican primary voters reasonably invest in a politician who changed so many positions? How good is Romney's word today?

During the GOP primary season, liberals like Kennedy are naturally cast as demons. If Romney becomes his party's nominee, how long before that picture of Romney and Kennedy in Faneuil Hall becomes a centerpiece of his campaign? What if he goes back to being the fiscally conservative social moderate many Massachusetts voters believed they were electing?

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain of Arizona, and Romney all face challenges when it comes to pleasing their party's conservative base. Some quality beyond sheer ideology is going to tip the balance in one candidate's favor.

Romney has money, organization, a strong resume, and presidential looks. But he also has Massachusetts. He can run against its liberal politics, but he can't run against its memory. Voters here remember what he said to win and what he did once elected.

The Romney team probably believes there is nothing to lose by running against the Bay State; the former governor can't win the state in a general election. If their conclusion is accurate, it isn't strictly because Romney is Republican. Ronald Reagan won Massachusetts when he ran for president. The threat Massachusetts poses to Romney is not the loss of its 12 electoral college votes on ideological grounds. It's the Bay State's ability to challenge Romney where it really hurts, on matters of truthfulness and character. To this day, it's hard to tell what he really believes on abortion or immigration or healthcare.

Massachusetts was Romney's springboard. It could also be his trip wire. Friendly divorces are rare indeed.

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

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