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GOP seeks to turn setbacks into gains

Governor Mitt Romney called for an income tax cut, and Democratic leaders mocked him as imprudent. Romney touted a "foolproof" death penalty, but Democrats ignored him. When it became clear John F. Kerry had a decent chance at winning the presidency, the Democratic-dominated Legislature stripped Romney of his power to name a successor for Kerry's seat in the US Senate.

Now, with the first legislative elections since Romney took office in 2002 fast approaching, Republican strategists are hoping they can turn their setbacks on Beacon Hill into victories at the polls in November.

"This Legislature spent its time trying to protect its friends and being obstructionist to reform, and that's great for Republicans come the fall," said Darrell Crate, chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party. "We'll simply show the voters how their legislators have been behaving on Beacon Hill."

Republicans are fielding 106 legislative challengers this year -- the biggest crop of GOP candidates in more than a decade -- and Romney has vowed to campaign vigorously for them. He has also been raising money, at a pace of about $300,000 per month. The governor believes his "reform" agenda helped boost the GOP candidate to victory in a special Senate election in March, and he is laying the groundwork for a similar statewide campaign in the fall.

His message: If you want reform, you've got to get rid of the Democrats who have dominated the Legislature for decades. For their part, Democrats insist they have proposed governmental overhauls -- including a huge school building assistance program -- that the Democrats say go one better than Romney's ideas.

Several times over the last six months, Romney has made headlines with dramatic policy announcements, only to see his proposals fizzle in the Legislature.

Charles Manning, a longtime Republican political consultant who has worked for the governor, said Romney does not have to sign his initiatives into law to reap political rewards from them. Instead, Manning said, Romney gets "his proposals and reforms out to people, so that they have an idea about them and understand them."

That, in turn, puts pressure on the Legislature and may help GOP challengers this fall, he said.

"It makes the legislators who are incumbents get asked those questions when they are in their districts. 'Why do you oppose the governor's death penalty proposal? If there is a gigantic surplus, why shouldn't that come back to taxpayers as a tax cut?' " Manning said. "I can't remember any governor getting off to such a successful start in his first 18 months as Mitt has."

Tying their fates to the governor might be a wise strategy for GOP legislative candidates: In a University of Massachusetts poll conducted in early May, 57 percent of respondents said Romney was doing an "excellent" or "good" job in office.

Romney has been able to maintain his popularity despite mixed legislative results. He has had some successes: His vow to veto any broad-based tax increase helped squelch any tax-increase talk on Beacon Hill, and he and the Legislature produced two balanced budgets during trying economic times. In fiscal 2004, which ended June 30, the state's revenue was $712 million more than predicted.

But his calls to cut income taxes and reinstate capital punishment have sparked little or no interest on Beacon Hill.

House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran chided Romney for proposing an "orgy" of tax cuts at a time when Massachusetts is still struggling to emerge from its fiscal crisis. The administration has not yet filed a death penalty bill, despite the work of a commission created by the governor to devise a capital punishment statute meant to guarantee that the innocent would not be sentenced to death.

In other areas Romney identified as ripe for overhaul -- including the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which Romney wanted to merge with the Highway Department, and the state's school construction program -- the Democrats have rejected the governor's ideas in favor of their own.

"Not only have they ignored Romney, they've gone ahead and reformed a whole bunch of state government right in front of him," said Lou DiNatale, a political analyst at the McCormack Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "In the face of the governor saying, 'It has to be done this way,' they went ahead and did it that way."

By outflanking the governor, DiNatale argued, the Democrats have "taken the steam right out of [the Republicans'] political strategy for the fall."

The state Democratic chairman, Philip W. Johnston, said Romney merely "mouths platitudes about reform, which really have no substance to them, and then the Legislature is on its own" when it comes to the hard work of crafting legislation.

"At the end of the day, I think a governor needs to be able to point to legislative accomplishments in order to demonstrate that he's an effective governor," Johnston said. "In this case, Romney is unable to do so."

But a Romney spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, argued that while the Legislature did not adopt many of the specific changes that Romney wanted in areas such as transportation and school construction, lawmakers might not have acted at all if the governor had not forced the issue.

"For a Republican who is surrounded by a sea of Democrats, he has done extraordinarily well in setting the agenda. Of course, he doesn't expect his proposals to be adopted without change. He recognizes that they will come out differently than they went in. But I don't think anyone can deny the influence that Governor Romney is having in state affairs," Fehrnstrom said. "All in all, Mitt Romney isn't having such a bad year."

Last week, after being told that the House Ways and Means chairman, John H. Rogers, had pronounced his supplemental budget "dead on arrival," Romney dismissed the grim assessment with a smile.

"For some people in the Legislature, it's their modus operandi to say something is 'dead on arrival' and then do it anyway, to change it in some small way, and then to say, 'See, we didn't do what he said,' " Romney said.

The Democrats are not about to yield the "reform" mantle to Romney and the Republicans this fall.

Rogers said, "if the Republican Party wants to claim credit and score political points, that seems petty to me."

Scott S. Greenberger can be reached at greenberger@globe.com.

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