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In poll, Romney's popularity on rise

Governor Mitt Romney has emerged from a summer of contentious budget dust-ups and a successful battle to oust University of Massachusetts president William Bulger with increased personal popularity, a new poll shows.

The survey taken by UMass Friday through Sunday of 402 registered Massachusetts voters shows that 63 percent of people surveyed have a favorable opinion of the first-year governor, up from 48 percent in May. Six in 10 approve of the job he is doing as governor.

The survey also found that a majority of those polled -- 51 percent -- approved of Romney's efforts to force Bulger to resign as UMass president, but 40 percent opposed the governor's aggressive attempts to remove him.

In another finding, US Senator John F. Kerry, who eight months ago was barely holding his own against President Bush in Massachusetts, has expanded his lead as Bush's high popularity both here and nationally slips. The survey shows voters prefer Kerry by 57 to 36 percent in a presidential match-up.

In a December UMass survey, Kerry's lead over Bush was a slim 45 to 40 percent, a technical tie when considering the poll's margin of error is plus or minus 5 percent. Howard Dean, Vermont's former governor, leads Bush 49 to 35 percent among Massachusetts voters in the current survey.

Romney's tenure over the last three months has been dominated by his fight over Bulger and his increasingly strained relations with the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, in good part brought on by disagreements over the state's efforts to deal with a $2.5 billion budget deficit.

Lou DiNatale, the director of the poll, attributes the governor's jump in popularity over the last three months to the resolution at the State House over how to deal with the deficit. He said his surveys also show that Beacon Hill talks of deep spending cuts depressed Romney's popularity in the past. But with the budget resolved two months ago with no major outcries, the governor's popularity has bounced back.

"There is not a lot of talk about cuts since the budget was settled," DiNatale said. "The cuts went into effect and the damage has not been particularly severe."

The quarterly UMass survey shows Romney's personal popularity and his job performance rating are at the highest since his first month in office. But his political standing is dragged down by a stubbornly solid bloc of voters -- about one third -- who do not like him or his job performance.

`The consistent campaign-like attack on the political culture of the state has boosted his standing," DiNatale said. "But while Romney remains personally popular, his unfavorable rating is increasing and hardening and that has to be of some concern to him."

The survey asked two questions to gauge Romney's standing with voters: One measured their opinion of Romney as a person; the other checked his job performance.

Regarding his personal popularity, 63 percent rated Romney favorably, 35 percent unfavorably in this month's survey. The favorable numbers show a marked improvement for the Republican governor. In late May, a UMass poll showed Romney's favorable rating at 48 percent, his unfavorable at 39 percent. In February, shortly after taking office, his disapproval rating was a respectable 21 percent, his favorable rating at 61 percent.

Asked to rate his job performance this month, 61 percent rated him excellent or good, but 36 percent rated him not so good or poor. In February, his job performance stood at 56 percent favorable, 23 percent unfavorable.

The May survey gave a strong edge to the Democratic-run Legislature over Romney -- 47 percent to 35 percent -- when voters were asked whom they trusted more to make the right decisions to deal with taxes and service cuts. But Romney ran even, 43 percent each, with the lawmakers when the question was asked last week.

Those numbers indicate some rough sledding for Romney and the Republican Party, which hopes to mount vigorous challenges to Democrats in next year's legislative elections. Although the Republicans have rarely been able to match their rhetoric in the past three decades, Romney and his GOP colleagues are trying to raise a large war chest and draw up a list of targeted seats in both the House and Senate in hopes of diminishing the Democratic dominance in the Legislature.

One issue the Republicans and Romney hope to use to hammer the Democrats will be taxes, but the UMass polls consistently show that the voters prefer tax increases over spending cuts, a finding the GOP leaders insist fails to represent the Massachusetts electorate.

Asked whether they would prefer to see the Legislature and Romney make cuts or raise taxes to deal with the budget problems, 31 percent of the sampled voters preferred cuts and 49 percent said they preferred raising taxes. That is almost identical to the UMass poll in May that found 47 percent favored higher taxes and 29 percent wanted spending cuts to balance the budget.

"Voters may like Romney personally, but they are ambivalent about his policy choices," DiNatale said. "That is reflected in the consistent pattern of those who vote for tax increases over cuts."

Q. What is your opinion of Governor Mitt Romney?
Margin of error is +/- percentage points.

SOURCE: University of Massachusetts poll of 402 registered voters from Sept. 5 to Sept. 7.

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