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NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Looking at Romney in a more national light

WASHINGTON -- Massachusetts has long been accepting of its political leaders' national ambitions, viewing their desire for wider influence as a reflection of the Commonwealth's own outsize sense of itself, the way parents indulge their own qualities in their kids.

But sometimes it rankles. John Kerry may have to spend the rest of his career explaining that national politics played no role in his vote to give the president the authority to make war in Iraq. Michael Dukakis has tried to show how his time away from Beacon Hill during the 1988 presidential campaign played only a small role in the fiscal crisis that followed.

Governor Mitt Romney is the latest to cast his eyes beyond the Berkshires, and signals of his presidential ambitions are everywhere. The governor's proposal last week to block any creation of an embryo for stem cell research may have been intended to lay down a marker for 2008. His decision to bypass all local and regional media and announce his plan in The New York Times suggests that it was. And his explanation for going with the Times -- that in the Internet era all media is national anyway -- makes sense only to someone who has been relentlessly surfing the Web for national political news.

Romney's stem cell policy, which is not likely to get much traction in the Legislature and has provoked a fierce reaction among researchers, came amid growing signs that Romney's smartest move may be to avoid the 2006 gubernatorial election and get a jump on the presidential primaries.

State polls indicate a decent approval rating for the governor and a clear majority saying the prospect of a presidential run in 2008 would not change their votes in 2006. But next year's governor's race won't be a gimme for Romney. Assuming he quits to run for the White House, he would be the third-straight elected governor to bail out in the middle of a second term. Voters have bad memories of the last midterm turnover of power, to Acting Governor Jane Swift. And linking Romney, whose service as governor seems calculated to buttress preexisting presidential ambitions, to William Weld, who joked about his short workdays as governor, and Paul Cellucci, who seemed only too eager to get the keys to an ambassador's mansion in Canada, forms a chain of selfishness over service.

Moreover, the logic behind at least three of the four-straight Republican victories for governor, including Romney's, has diminished. In 1990, 1994, and 2002, suburban voters chose Republicans as a check on the excesses of the urban bosses controlling the state's huge Democratic majorities in the Legislature. Weld undermined Boston University president John Silber's claim to be an outsider in 1990 by noting his close ties to the reigning boss of the era, Senate President William Bulger. His reelection against a member of the Legislature, Mark Roosevelt, was a foregone conclusion. In 2002, Romney defeated state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien in part by tying her to House Speaker Tom Finneran, the big boss of his era.

Cellucci's narrow victory over Scott Harshbarger in 1998 followed a different path. Cellucci himself forged ties to urban bosses, especially Boston Mayor Tom Menino, and reduced Harshbarger's margins in Democratic strongholds. But at the same time, Cellucci relied on his Republican affiliation to demonstrate his independence to suburbanites.

Now, Bulger and Finneran are gone, replaced by figures who are not likely to strike fear in Woburn. And Romney's admirable no-deals posture, combined with his trims in local aid, preclude coalitions with Democratic mayors.

There is another factor that could turn suburbanites away from Romney: George W. Bush. Massachusetts has always been resistant to Bush, and even voted against him by a slightly higher percentage in 2000 than in 2004. But the intensity of feelings against the president is greater now.

Romney won the governor's seat back when the most contentious national issue was whether to grant civil service protections to Homeland Security workers. It is impossible to know where the country will be in 2006, but there are enough conflicts looming in Washington, from war to Social Security and the conservative social agenda, to suggest that anti-Bush feeling in Massachusetts will still be strong. Romney is a known quantity, distanced from Bush on many issues, but some suburbanites surely would be reluctant to pull a lever for Bush's party.

Then there is Romney's leading opponent, Attorney General Tom Reilly. If the Democrats were putting together an ideal candidate the way children attach features to Mr. Potato Head, Reilly would not be it. He is soft-spoken to the point of dullness and, as a career prosecutor who ran for district attorney and attorney general, he lacks a firm political base. But those qualities may reassure Democratic-leaning suburbanites that he would be no tool of the Legislature. Hailing from Springfield, he is not likely to arouse fears of Boston's influence, but he would retain Menino's firm backing.

Reilly's colorlessness would play better than usual against a governor prepping for a presidential run. Whatever can be said about Reilly, he is probably not measuring the curtains in the Oval Office. But he is from Massachusetts, so you cannot be sure.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

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