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Diplomat's new cause: Romney

He's been a neutral observer for elections in two former Soviet states, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Now Newton's Kent Lucken is trying his hand at partisan politics.

Lucken, 42, will trade his elegant 30th-floor office in the Prudential complex for the farm fields of Iowa to stump for former governor Mitt Romney.

As one of the six members of Romney's Iowa Steering Committee, he is charged with helping the Republican get through an important early test of the 2008 presidential nomination process, the party's Aug. 11 straw poll.

For the Harvard-educated former US diplomat, the mission to Iowa amounts to a homecoming.

His roots in the state go back four generations. He grew up on a 1,000-acre cattle farm near Akron (population 1,500) where his parents still live.

Lucken, a Citigroup Private Bank managing director, plans to move back to Iowa for part of the summer.

"The whole family is going to get involved," said Lucken, who has sons ages 12 and 15. "The kids will lick stamps and hold signs," just as he did at age 16 in 1980 when his father supported George H. Bush, the incumbent president's father, over Ronald Reagan for the GOP nomination.

He says Romney is perceived in Iowa much differently than he is in Boston, where critics slam him for a rightward shift on gay marriage and abortion rights while preparing for the national stage.

"Governor Romney is very profamily, and I think that's strongly supported by Iowa voters. Iowa is a traditional society that embraces those values," Lucken said.

"Iowans are not closely following life here in the big city. It's two different worlds."

The stakes are high. In 2000, about half of the GOP candidates dropped out of the race following the Iowa straw polls. If he's successful this summer, Lucken plans to return to Iowa to rally support for Romney in the Republican caucuses in January.

He's looking forward to campaigning, Lucken said, for both political and personal reasons. As a fervent Republican, he said, he felt frustrated about having to stay out of the fray for the many years he was a federal employee. As a native Midwesterner, he misses the wide-open spaces -- although Iowa's low-density demographics make politicking more difficult.

"Iowa is a logistical challenge," he said, with just 3 million people spread over roughly 56,000 square miles and 99 counties. "We'll have teams in every county."

By comparison, Massachusetts has twice as many residents in about one-fifth the space.

After helping Romney kick off his presidential run in Iowa at the State Fairgrounds -- on the same day he made his official announcement in his native state of Michigan -- Lucken and the steering committee will provide advice on shaping the campaign's message to voters in the Hawkeye State.

Frequent personal appearances in Iowa and television ads are beginning to distinguish Romney from the pack of nearly 20 Democrats and Republicans who have announced plans to bid for the presidency, Lucken said.

"If you think about it, Iowa is a state of farmers and small towns, which by definition means a lot of them own farms or businesses," Lucken said. "I think they'll respond to someone who is fiscally conservative and has started his own company."

Iowans value their personal freedom and a minimum of government intrusion in their lives, he added.

Government has played a major role in Lucken's life since his childhood, when he sought out books at the public library to better understand the country's Cold War nemesis, the Soviet Union. After graduating from Iowa State University, he spent 14 years in the Foreign Service, and served as a diplomat in several Slavic countries, including Croatia during Yugoslavia's violent split in the early 1990s. He remembers several particularly tense months of work in the heavily guarded embassy in Zagreb after his young family and other Americans were evacuated from Croatia.

"It was out of a sense of idealism that I wanted to represent my country and US interests overseas," he said. "I wanted to see the Soviet Union firsthand, and when I got there I was shocked: The place was falling apart and the government was ruthless. It made me more committed to wanting to get involved in the political process."

After settling in Newton in 2000, he received a master's degree in public administration from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, then was called back by the State Department to oversee elections in Georgia in 2003, and revisited the role for elections in Kyrgyzstan in 2005.

His Citibank job takes him halfway around the world while helping businesses establish new outposts. He makes several trips a year to China, in part as a board member of the USA-Asia Institute, a nongovernmental organization that promotes East-West ties. And he remains involved with his alma mater, Iowa State, serving as a political science adviser.

A mutual friend introduced him to former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, who helped find him a place in the 2002 Romney-Healey campaign.

Besides volunteering his time, Lucken has contributed over $14,000 to Republican campaigns and political action groups over the past four years.

Lucken's skills and background caught the attention of Darrell Crate, treasurer of the Romney for President campaign and a former chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party. Crate said that in addition to his enthusiasm and creativity, Lucken has a "wealth of political contacts in Iowa.

"Kent Lucken's future is very bright," Crate said.

But Lucken scoffs at suggestions that he's looking down the road to a White House slot.

"I'm doing this out of a passion for the candidate and because I like politics, not to go back to D.C."

Alison O'Leary Murray can be reached at