Governor Mitt Romney's political trips out of state are forcing Republicans in Massachusetts to privately contemplate the prospect that he will not run for reelection so he can focus on a presidential bid, leaving the 2006 GOP gubernatorial nomination up for grabs.
Even as Romney continued to say he planned to run for re-election next year, Republican strategists floated names of would-be GOP candidates for governor last week. Two of those -- Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey and Charles D. Baker, chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care -- are considered almost certain to jump into a campaign if Romney steps aside.
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, a former Massachusetts state legislator from Holbrook and a failed candidate for the 1982 GOP gubernatorial nomination, is often touted by political observers, but those close to him say he would almost certainly not be interested.
''He is running the world right now, so why would he want to come back here and do that?" said one close friend. Another said President Bush wants Card to stay as chief of staff for the full four years of his second term. Card and his wife, Kathleene, an ordained minister serving a local congregation, are well settled in Virginia, their home for almost 25 years, friends said.
Healey, on the other hand, remains on the list of many strategists. She already has $562,000 in her political account and will have well over $1 million by the end of the year, aides say. In what could be a more decisive advantage over Baker, Healey also has access to personal funds that could add several million dollars more to her campaign.
''She could write a Mitt-sized check," said one GOP strategist, referring to the $6.1 million Romney used from his personal funds for his 2002 gubernatorial campaign. In that year, Healey used $1.8 million of her own money for her campaign for lieutenant governor. Since then, Affiliated Management Group, the financial services firm run by her husband, Sean, has grown significantly.
Baker, although making $950,000 a year as Harvard Pilgrim's chief executive, has not accumulated a fortune that he can use to finance a campaign. Republicans point out another disadvantage: While Healey can continue to raise money as a lieutenant governor candidate without seeming disloyal to Romney, Baker cannot set up a campaign finance operation unless he would appear to be impatient for Romney to step aside.
As Romney's political future roiled the political waters last week, Baker, who served in top posts under former governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci, downplayed interest in the race last week, saying he was concentrating on his private sector job.
But interviews with several of his colleagues and former public sector associates indicate that Baker is keenly interested in running if Romney drops out. One said Baker is well aware that each month that goes by makes it more difficult for him to raise the amounts of money he would need to mount an effective race.
''Mitt says he is running for reelection, and I assume he is running for reelection," Baker said. He dismissed any questions on what he would do if Romney bows out as ''hypothetical and not worth speculating about."
''It would depend on the circumstances," Baker said of a potential run, when pressed. ''It is hard to predict."
Others who could be expected to take a hard look at the race are businessman Christy Mihos, the former Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board member; James Rappaport, former chairman of the state Republican Party and the 1990 GOP nominee for the US Senate who lost to incumbent John F. Kerry; and former state treasurer Joseph D. Malone.
Mihos, a gadfly political figure who is suing former governor Jane Swift for violating his constitutional right to free speech for trying to fire him from the board, brushed off questions about a possible race governor, saying he was ''too independent for Republicans and Democrats."
Rappaport, who has a personal fortune he could use to finance a campaign, said he would have to consider such a race. He also touted Mihos as a gubernatorial candidate. And he urged Romney to make up his mind sooner than later, preferably by the summer.
''The Republican electorate in the presidential primaries would never forgive him for hanging the Massachusetts Republican Party out to dry and forgo any change for it to retain the governor's office," Rappaport said.
He said the governor was using carefully phrased sentences to describe his intention to run, such as saying he anticipated running for re-election. He said Romney should be clearer. ''This is not a complicated opportunity for parsing words and phrases," Rappaport said.
The governor and Rappaport have had political conflicts in the past. Romney, after saying he would not get involved, chose Healey as his running mate in 2002 and in the primary helped her defeat Rappaport.
Whether Malone could make a political comeback seems unlikely. His attempt to challenge Cellucci for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 1998 fell flat. But more damaging was the scandal when an investigation uncovered a $9.4 million embezzlement scheme by several of Malone's top aides in the treasurer's office.