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As his calendar fills, Romney downplays trips

Governor Mitt Romney yesterday defended his out-of-state trips and increasingly conservative rhetoric as part of his growing efforts to build the Republican Party, as new details emerged of at least three more political trips he plans in coming weeks.

Fresh off a long weekend in which he touched on God, country, and family values in speeches in Missouri and South Carolina, Romney on Friday heads to Utah, where he will address a crowd of Salt Lake County Republicans at a major fund-raiser.

Then Romney travels to Washington, D.C., where he will meet with the nation's governors, hobnob at a Republican governors' fund-raiser, and dine with President Bush and Laura Bush at the White House.

In mid-March, Romney will be the keynote speaker at the Michigan state Senate's annual dinner. He has also been invited in early April to a black-tie fund-raiser in Horry County, S.C., where the local GOP has asked him to deliver yet another speech.

"The effort is all to support the party," said Trent Wisecup, a Michigan Republican operative who is managing five political action committees that Romney's friends have established to raise his national profile as a GOP party builder.

Romney has repeatedly insisted that he plans to run for reelection as governor in 2006 and to simultaneously help his fellow Republicans around the nation. He attempted to downplay his ambitions for higher office yesterday.

"When I speak to an audience outside Massachusetts, people are always amused at how there can be a Republican in Massachusetts, and there's no question that when I speak to a national audience, I speak about Republicans and I talk about national leaders like President Bush," Romney said.

"They don't come to hear me speak about Massachusetts alone, although I got a little of that in. They also hear what I have to say about national policies the president is bringing forward, and I support the president, support the party, and when I go out to fund-raisers for Republicans in other states, I'll make sure to make a good pitch for the Republican Party in general."

Nonetheless, activists and pundits put Romney on the list of potential presidential candidates, and the interest in his future ratcheted up several notches Monday. On Presidents' Day, he gave an address laden with religious and patriotic references to a group of conservative Republicans in Spartanburg, S.C., while C-SPAN's cameras captured the event live as part of the network's "Road to the White House" series.

In the speech, Romney reiterated his opposition to same-sex marriage, said he was against civil unions, and expressed surprise that gay couples in Massachusetts are having children.

He also blasted Massachusetts Democrats' proposals to encourage human embryonic stem cell research that entails cloning and made several comments about the inviolable nature of human life.

Within hours, the Log Cabin Republicans and Bay State Democratic Party officials tore into Romney for portraying himself as a far-right Republican abroad while maintaining a moderate position at home. The Log Cabin group labeled him a flip-flopper.

Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of the College of Communication at Boston University, said the governor's growing emphasis on his conservative positions is likely to alienate him from the independent, socially moderate voters who gave Romney the winning edge in 2002, especially on the topic of abortion.

He speculated that Romney has shifted his focus to the 2008 presidential primaries, generally dominated by conservative Republican voters.

"Most of these independents are progressive on social issues and moderate on fiscal issues, and the reason that Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Mitt Romney managed to get elected is because they came across as sane, social Republicans who would keep Massachusetts voters from being taxed into the Dark Ages," Berkovitz said. "If you are not going to need their vote a year from November, you then start playing toward Republican primary voters."

Yesterday Romney told reporters that there was nothing inconsistent in his comments in Massachusetts and those delivered elsewhere, and he explained that he likes to deliver a partisan speech to partisan crowds. He dismissed the idea that he was burnishing his conservative credentials prior to a run for national office.

Asked whether he was trying to paint himself as more prolife than he's been in Massachusetts, Romney said: "I don't really describe my position in one hyphenated word, I describe the same thing I have for some time during this last campaign, and that is that I personally do not favor abortion. I'm personally prolife, if you will. But as the governor of the Commonwealth, I will not change the prochoice laws of the Commonwealth. I will support them, sustain them, keep them in place. And we haven't changed the laws, and I will not change the laws as long as I'm governor."

Asked whether he had flip-flopped on the issue of gay rights, Romney said: "I've made it very, very clear from the very beginning that I do not support gay marriage or civil unions, and you'll never find a statement anywhere that says I support civil unions. The record is very clear throughout that I do not support gay marriage or civil unions. However, I do believe that certain domestic partnership benefits should be associated with same-sex couples, and I indicated that from the days of my campaign right on through."

Despite Romney's explanations, the governor's hectic travel-and-speech schedule led CNN yesterday to headline a segment about potential presidential contenders with Romney, in which journalists speculated that the governor was not positioning himself for a 2006 reelection run, but a 2008 run for the presidency.

South Carolina is a key first-in-the-South primary state, and Missouri and Michigan are swing states in a general election. The PACs established by Romney's friends have also been pumping tens of thousands of dollars into 17 states, including Iowa, which stages the caucuses that kick off presidential campaigns.

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