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JOAN VENNOCHI

Romney's liberal shadow

WHO'S THAT peering over Mitt Romney's shoulder? It's not John McCain. It's the Massachusetts liberal.

Bay State lawmakers last week defeated a proposal to put gay marriage on the ballot for an up or down vote. From the Romney campaign perspective, the left-wing crowd is at it again, and that's not so terrible.

"It helps Mitt," a Romney adviser said. That view could be correct, up to a point.

The vote taken by Bay State lawmakers showcases the state's ultra- liberalism and gives the former Massachusetts governor another reason to kick Massachusetts around.

Beyond that, it fires up opponents of same-sex marriage, who constitute a fierce conservative base. They are already expressing fears about what happens now that Massachusetts is the only state where same-sex marriage is legal: Gay couples will travel here, obtain a marriage license, then sue to strike down laws banning same-sex marriage in other states.

"It confirms what we have always said about trajectory of this debate. It's headed toward a national standard governing the social institution of marriage," said Matt Daniels, president of the Virginia-based Alliance for Marriage. Instead of settling the debate, Daniels said the Massachusetts vote ensures it will be part of the 2008 presidential discussion. "I think the issue is sufficiently important to most Americans and sufficiently advanced that it will be an inescapable part of our public discourse. . . . I can't imagine it's going to fade away," said Daniels. An amendment banning same-sex marriage could also be on the Florida ballot in 2008, according to an Alliance for Marriage spokesman.

For Romney, the gay marriage debate is another illustration of his need to recast his record as governor of Massachusetts.

That explains why he was the first presidential contender in either party to comment on the gay marriage vote, calling it "regrettable" and adding, "Unfortunately, our elected representatives decided that the voice of the people did not need to be heard in this debate."

Romney also used the opportunity to call upon Congress to pass a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Federal lawmakers have refused to do that, but right now, Romney's audience is conservative America, not Congress.

Romney is now leading polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, leading to a shift in the dynamics of the Republican presidential contest. McCain, the Arizona senator who was supposed to be the frontrunner, is trying to undermine Romney's surging poll numbers by reviving questions about Romney's shifting positions on issues such as abortion.

The McCain campaign recently sent out an e-mail stating that "Mitt Romney's biggest challenge in this election will be convincing Republicans he has principled positions on important issues, especially now that it's known that he remained committed to pro-choice policies after his 'epiphany' on abortion in 2004. In stark contrast, John McCain has a consistent 24 year pro life record."

Romney committed himself to pro choice policies and miscellaneous moderate social stands in order to run for office in Massachusetts, and with good political reason. It would be hard to imagine a pro life, anti-gay rights social conservative winning a Massachusetts governor's race. Once elected, Romney used Massachusetts as the launchpad he intended from the start. He began the dramatic political retooling that he hopes will win him the Republican nomination, then the presidency.

In that regard, gay rights and the gay marriage issue hold similar peril for Romney. When he was running against Edward M. Kennedy, Romney said he would be a stronger advocate for gay rights than the liberal senator. Conservative critics also charge that as governor, he unnecessarily implemented same-sex marriage after the state's highest court declared that gay couples have a right to marry. In a compilation entitled, "The Mitt Romney Deception," Romney critic Brian Camenker holds Romney accountable for gay marriage in Massachusetts on the grounds that he "jumped the gun and needlessly advanced the homosexual agenda by granting marriage rights without a fight."

Such critics are forcing Romney to explain what he said as a gubernatorial candidate, and why. But Republican primary voters may also give Romney credit for speaking out against his home state now, as they question how much any single Republican could do to stop the liberal tide demonstrated by the gay marriage vote.

Meanwhile, there's some poetic justice in the fact that whenever Romney looks in the rearview mirror, a Massachusetts liberal is not far behind.

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

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