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As busy as a candidate, Romney stirs buzz

NEW YORK -- Governor Mitt Romney does not have many connections to Iowa. He is a Michigan native with roots in Utah and Massachusetts. But yesterday, he sought to make clear just how fond he is of the state that hosts the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.

At a breakfast for Iowa delegates to the Republican convention, Romney recalled business trips he made as a young man to Marshalltown, Iowa. "I feel like I know a corner of Iowa," he said, drawing appreciative nods from the crowd.

This fall Romney plans to get better acquainted. Romney will be the keynote speaker at the Iowa Republican Party's annual Ronald Reagan dinner in October. The slot has traditionally gone to party luminaries, including senior White House political adviser Karl Rove in 2002 and Governor George E. Pataki of New York in 2003.

Romney's planned Iowa appearance, plus his high-profile convention schedule, has delegates, strategists, and politicians in New York buzzing. Tonight, the governor will address the convention in a prime-time speaking slot. Tomorrow morning, he will address delegates from Michigan, another key state in presidential elections.

Romney is not talking about his national ambitions, insisting he is focused on 2006, when he says he plans to seek reelection as governor. But Romney is one of several names that surface consistently as potential 2008 contenders, including Pataki, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Governor Bill Owens of Colorado, Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, and Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee.

Some political observers suggest that Romney's moderate stances could jeopardize his chances of winning over the Republican base, particularly conservatives in the South. Though he opposes gay marriage, Romney supported a civil union alternative, and he backs federal funding of stem-cell research and the status quo on abortion rights.

In New York, Romney has appeared aware of the reputation that precedes him, quipping that fellow Republicans have forgiven him for hailing from one of the most liberal states in the nation.

As he has throughout the presidential campaign, he assumed the role of critic in chief of Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Romney told the Iowa delegates a joke he credited to late-night television talk show host Conan O'Brien, taking aim at Kerry's marriages to two wealthy women. "When he says he's going after the rich, he's not kidding," Romney cracked.

He also criticized what he described as Kerry's policy flip-flops, calling him "conflicted." On the war in Iraq, Romney said, "Kerry is trying to be on both sides . . . and as a result, he ends up sounding like he can't take a position on one side or the other."

Romney himself toed the administration line on the war at a news conference yesterday. "I support the president with regards to the policy on the war. I have confidence in him and believe he is doing everything in his power to preserve the peace and to protect our citizens."

Yesterday, Romney seemed intent on emphasizing a conservative world view, returning often to the theme of gay marriage. At the breakfast, he highlighted his support for a federal amendment to ban same-sex marriages, telling the crowd, "I believe we should recognize that in the development of a child, having a mother and a father is ideal. . . . We still want to preserve marriage as an institution or as being an ideal, the model for raising our children."

The crowd of several dozen responded enthusiastically, one person shouting out, "There you go!" and another saying, "God bless you."

Romney's father was a governor of Michigan, and Romney himself held the high-stakes job of heading up the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. For all his lamentations about his home base of Massachusetts -- a mere "outpost" of Republicans, as Romney described it yesterday -- his win of the corner office in an overwhelmingly Democratic state has served to impress many in Republican circles.

"Anytime a Republican wins in Massachusetts, it automatically elevates them a notch," said Dave Roederer, the Iowa chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign.

Representative Jim Leach of Iowa, a veteran legislator and one of the most liberal Republicans in the House, said he had not met Romney but was impressed from a distance. "His reputation is sterling," Leach said. "He doesn't wave his arms wildly. He's a classic reasonable statesman."

Romney is not without competition. Yesterday, as he exited the Iowa breakfast, Giuliani was waiting in the hallway.

"There's home runs, and then there are grand slams," Romney said of Giuliani's convention speech Monday night. "That was just unbelievable."

In turn, Giuliani said of Romney, "I think he's a terrific governor and a great star in our party."

With that, Romney continued on his political trek across Manhattan, heading to a luncheon for Republican senators, the sort of GOP stalwarts who could be key support should he opt to run in 2008.

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