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Romney says convention should move

Democrats reject call for shift to S. Boston

Governor Mitt Romney offered some unsolicited advice to the Democrats yesterday: Move your July national convention from the FleetCenter to the new convention center in South Boston.

Presumptive Democratic nominee John F. Kerry, Mayor Thomas M. Menino and other top Democrats quickly rejected the Republican governor's idea, which touched off a row worthy of a presidential election year in a city that in just four months will host its first national political convention.

Romney argued that the FleetCenter lies "in the heart of our transportation system," adjacent to both the Central Artery and North Station and across the street from a subway stop, and will require security arrangements that will greatly disrupt Boston's already harried commuters.

He suggested that the Democrats will be to blame for the traffic mess. Many of the problems, he said, could be averted if the event were held at the sprawling Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, which is scheduled to open in June in South Boston, comfortably outside the downtown area.

"It would clearly be easier if this convention were being held in the new convention center," Romney told reporters. "I anticipate that when people find it difficult to come in and out of the city, they're going to ask a question: `Why wasn't this held at the new convention center?' And the answer is, `This is where the party chose to have their convention.' "

Romney conceded he has no control over where the event is held, and he said he expected the Democratic National Committee to stick with the FleetCenter.

The Republicans are holding their convention in a similarly congested location: Madison Square Garden in midtown Manhattan, which is adjacent to a major train station. But Pennsylvania Station is far enough underground that security planners feel it is safer, according to Menino and aides to Romney.

Menino, who has been heading convention preparations, said that if Romney wants to help plan the convention, he should commit state money to the event.

The mayor and governor are locked in a tense standoff over whether the city or the state should cover a fund-raising gap of up to $10 million.

"If the governor thinks about helping pay for it, maybe he'll be part of the decision making, too," the mayor said. "There's no conversations that have been held with any Democrats at all. This is an issue that came out of the governor's office. It's a conversation he has had with his staff."

Philip W. Johnston, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, accused Romney of meddling with the Democrats' event on behalf of the Bush-Cheney campaign.

Michael Meehan, a Kerry spokesman, also said that politics appeared to be driving Romney's statements.

"I'm sure Governor Romney would like to move the convention to Crawford, Texas," Meehan said, referring to the town where President Bush owns a ranch. "But we look forward to having him as our guest when John Kerry accepts the nomination at the FleetCenter."

A senior Romney administration official said top aides to the governor have engaged in intense discussions among themselves and with convention planners about the possible use of the South Boston convention center over the past month, as the US Secret Service began to outline its security concerns for the FleetCenter.

Those concerns have centered on the possibility of explosives being carried in vehicles on Interstate 93, which runs alongside the FleetCenter, or on commuter rail trains at North Station.

A partial shutdown of I-93 and closing of North Station -- both are being contemplated -- would not eliminate security risks. Even if the subway stop is closed, Orange Line trains will continue to run beneath the auditorium, raising terrorism concerns, particularly after last week's train bombings in Spain.

Those measures are being carried out by state agencies, partially under Romney control, but the decisions are being driven by the Secret Service and Boston Police Department.

In recent weeks, the official said, Romney aides floated the South Boston convention center idea in conversations with several people involved in convention planning, including David Passafaro, president of the local host committee, and convention authority executive director James Rooney.

But Jane F. Garvey, the former Federal Aviation Administration administrator who is an unpaid security consultant for the convention's host committee, said she heard the idea mentioned only briefly and considered it a "dead issue" from the start.

Passafaro rejected the concept out of hand because of contractual obligations to the FleetCenter and because planning is so far advanced, said Karen Grant, the host committee's spokeswoman.

Still, the governor said he is publicly lobbying for the event to be at the convention center because it seems perfectly situated to ease security concerns.

"It doesn't have a train station underneath it," Romney said. "It doesn't have subway stations next to it. It doesn't have roadways next to it. It's a big building. It would be ideal in many respects. I'd love to see it in the convention center."

The Romney administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the possibility of using the South Boston center instead of the FleetCenter was received enthusiastically by Secret Service officials.

A Secret Service spokeswoman disputed that account, however, pointing out that the agency has no involvement in choosing where to host political events. Instead, the Secret Service makes security arrangements to fit sites picked by others, and agency officials are certain that the FleetCenter will work out fine for the Democrats.

"The Secret Service is not involved in site selection for the event," said Ann Roman, a spokeswoman for the Secret Service.

Convention organizers said it's too late to change their plans even if they wanted to, with the convention barely four months away. The Democratic National Committee signed a contract with the FleetCenter and all preparations for security, transportation, protest sites, and media workspace have been laid out with that venue in mind.

"It would [be] hugely expensive and logistically impossible to move the convention," said Peggy Wilhide, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Convention Committee. "The FleetCenter was a key ingredient in why we chose Boston. It's a great location for the convention."

Still, the chance to avert traffic nightmares struck a chord with some Boston officials. Councilor at Large Maura Hennigan urged Menino and Democratic officials to fully consider the possibility of having the convention in South Boston. "It would minimize some of the potential problems," Hennigan said. "There is definitely enough time to work out any transportation and logistical issues."

Raphael Lewis of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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