Mass. vote will test if Romney is a favorite son

Email|Print| Text size + By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / January 31, 2008

As he tries to regain his footing after a tough loss in Florida's presidential primary, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney faces an unusual problem for a presidential hopeful: making sure he carries his home state.

The Florida results this week have added to momentum for Romney's chief rival, US Senator John McCain, and some analysts see that surge spilling over into Massachusetts as the GOP primary season heads into next week's Super Tuesday contests in 21 states.

Adding to potential problems for Romney is his declining popularity in the state. Romney antagonized many in the local GOP during his single term as governor when he shifted to the ideological right, part of a bid to broaden his appeal to more conservative Republican primary voters.

A loss in Massachusetts - delivered by GOP voters who know him best - could be acutely embarrassing, although it would certainly not be decisively negative if he can bounce back elsewhere and outperform McCain in other states.

Romney enjoys the endorsement of former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld, but not of former governor Paul Cellucci, who has supported former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, nor of former acting governor Jane Swift, who backs McCain.

Also, McCain has shown strength in Massachusetts before. He scored a major victory in the state's 2000 presidential primary against George W. Bush, even while Bush appeared to be cruising to the nomination. Also, the number of Republicans registered in Massachusetts has shrunk 5 percent since the last presidential election, to 485,959, while the ranks of unaffiliated voters who are eligible to vote in either party primary have swelled to more than 2 million.

While many independents may be drawn into the red-hot race for the Democratic nomination, the increasing number of unaffiliated voters could still favor McCain.

McCain drew heavily from independents when he won the crucial New Hampshire primary on Jan. 8, setting up his subsequent wins in South Carolina and Florida. Romney has won Michigan, Nevada, and Wyoming.

"It will be a very close race here," said Todd Domke, a veteran Republican analyst who is unaligned in the race.

Disillusionment among party members may be the deepest problem for Romney in Massachusetts, said Swift. Romney muscled Swift out of a 2002 race when she was acting governor and was hoping to seek a four-year term, but she said she nonetheless voted for Romney in the 2002 governor's election. Explaining her backing of McCain now, she maintained that Romney "ceded" his claim to the loyalties of Massachusetts Republicans.

"There is a sense that Governor Romney lost his enthusiasm for Massachusetts and people like me and like my neighbors, who are raising our children here and building businesses here," she said. "This is the first time I won't have voted for Mitt Romney when he was on the ballot."

Romney aides countered that the former governor is in good shape, pointing to one poll taken before his loss this week in Florida and another before his loss to McCain in South Carolina that suggested he had a strong lead in Massachusetts. Those polls, conducted by WBZ-TV, indicated Romney hovering at about 50 percent of likely primary voters in a four-way race and ahead of McCain by 14 to 20 percentage points.

"Massachusetts doesn't like McCain's positions in favor of amnesty for illegal immigrants and his votes against the tax reform cuts in 2001 and 2003," said Charley Manning, a Romney campaign aide in the Bay State.

Romney's campaign provided a long list of legislators, sheriffs, and local officials who support him. In the House, 18 out of the 19 Republican members back him, while just two out of five of the Republican state senators have endorsed him.

For all the jockeying around endorsements, neither Romney nor McCain has waged a major fight in Massachusetts. They are not advertising, and there is no major ground presence. The most Massachusetts residents have seen the candidates was on TV advertising aired in Boston that was aimed at New Hampshire primary voters.

Manning would not discuss the campaign's strategy for winning Massachusetts. But campaign aides said Romney, who will barnstorm other Super Tuesday primary states, is not expected to appear here until Tuesday for a primary day rally.

When he returned to Massachusetts after leading the Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games and won the governor's race, Romney was highly popular. But as the first Republican to run nationally from Massachusetts since Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., in 1960, Romney left office last year without solid local party backing.

The Massachusetts GOP's ambivalence about Romney has complex roots, with some ideological basis, especially because of shifts in his positions on stem cell research and abortion. When he was elected in 2002, he supported them, and by the tend of his term, he was against them.

He also failed to build political and personal alliances with many in the party leadership. Some, like Cellucci and former state treasurer Joseph D. Malone, never warmed to Romney. They both lined up behind Rudy Giulani.

Still, Malone's former chief of staff, Beth Myers, is Romney's campaign manager. His one-time fund-raiser, Steve Roche, is a chief fund-raiser for Romney. Manning was once a close Malone political adviser. Eric Fehrnstrom, who worked as Malone's press secretary, is Romney's press secretary. Weld endorsed Romney early on and has participated in some fund-raising and campaign events with him.

Some of the state's major GOP fund-raisers have shunned the governor. Romney's refusal to accommodate Christopher Egan's request to run his economic development agency cost the former governor any help from the wealthy Egan family, including Richard Egan, the founder of EMC Corp. Boston Scientific's founder and chairman, Peter Nicholas, is raising money for McCain.

But Romney's presidential campaign spokesman, Fehrnstrom, disputed that all these factors mean Romney faces trouble in his own backyard.

"People locally take pride in Governor Romney," Fehrnstrom said. "They remember what it was like when he took office - the economy was losing jobs, the budget was out of control, and state government was a mess. Mitt Romney turned the state around, and he can do the same for our country."

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.

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