AMES, Iowa -- Nearly three weeks after a ceiling collapse in a Big Dig tunnel killed a Boston woman, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney yesterday portrayed his stewardship of the crisis as a sign that he is ``willing to take action."
Romney, in his first significant out-of-state political trip since the July 10 accident, told 200 people at a Republican lunch yesterday that he had stepped in to oversee the beleaguered $14.6 billion project when others would not.
``The best thing for me to do politically is stay away from the Big Dig -- just get as far away from that tar baby as I possibly can," Romney said, answering an audience question about whether his new responsibility for the project's safety carried political risk. ``But I got elected as governor of Massachusetts. It's part of my job to do what I think is the right thing."
He cast himself as willing to tackle a seemingly intractable problem. ``One thing's for sure, I am sure tired of people who just have nothing but talk and are not willing to take action. I'm willing to take action, and that's what I'm going to do," he said to rousing applause.
In the past, Democrats have criticized Romney for being disengaged from Massachusetts business as his out-of-state-trips mounted. But since the Big Dig ceiling collapse, he has gotten generally favorable reviews.
By invoking his role in the aftermath of the tragedy, Romney's rhetoric suggests that he and his advisers sense an opportunity to write a new and glowing chapter in his political biography. The potential 2008 presidential candidate boasts that he turned around the potentially disastrous 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and helped Massachusetts recover from a recession and massive budget shortfalls.
The governor did not publicly address the Big Dig crisis at the Ames lunch until he was asked about it, but Doug Gross, who runs the Iowa operations for Romney's political action committee, Commonwealth PAC, told the audience in his introduction that this was another instance where Romney's leadership skills had shone brightly.
Gross's description of those responsible for the Big Dig's troubles as ``old-style ward-type Democrats" wasn't quite accurate -- outgoing Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew J. Amorello is a long time Republican, as have been the last three governors -- but he portrayed Romney as a savior nonetheless.
``You know what the Democratic Legislature of Massachusetts did?," Gross asked, referring to a bill state lawmakers passed giving Romney's administration oversight of the project's safety. ``They called on this man. They called on this man to fix it, to take control of that Big Dig and to fix it."
Gross connected Romney's abilities with the threats and challenges facing the United States, including the regimes of North Korea and Iran, both potentially armed with nuclear technology.
``In these kinds of extraordinary times, you need extraordinary people," he said.
Yesterday's lunch, sponsored by Romney's political action committee, was billed as a picnic, but with the temperatures in the high 90s, those attending were grateful that it was held inside a hotel conference center.
Even before the program began, those in attendance showed a remarkable knowledge of the Big Dig and Romney's role in it, despite the project being more than 1,300 miles away.
``What Mitt did with the Salt Lake City Olympics is sort of a similar situation," said J. Phil Harrop, 28, who runs the John Stoddard Cancer Center in Des Moines. ``The thing I've been impressed with is that he was quick to take action. I thought, `Hey, look at this guy. He's diving in.' "
Michael Diischer, a 51-year-old former schoolteacher from Pocahontas, Iowa, even corrected a reporter who imprecisely described the problems with the Big Dig tunnel ceiling that caused the accident. ``Was it really not screwed in right? I heard it was . . . more the system that was used," he said.
The Big Dig accident, which killed 38-year-old Milena Del Valle of Jamaica Plain, came at an unusual time for Romney. It has forced him to refocus his attention on a local problem just as his out-of-state preparations for 2008 were heating up. He leaves office early next year.
But the governor has sought to highlight his leadership skills by taking control of the Big Dig's safety -- leading regular press briefings, promising a full review of the project, and displaying a sudden command of engineering lingo. On Thursday, he scored a key victory: Amorello acceded to the governor's demand that he resign.
Romney said in an interview yesterday that he was surprised how much people here knew about the Big Dig and its recent troubles. Asked whether he felt the crisis provided an opportunity for him politically, he said it was too soon to know.
``It will either be a political benefit or political detriment -- I think it's too early to tell," he said. ``But, you know, you take what comes along.
``I could have ducked this. There was no reason for me to go the Legislature and ask for this emergency legislation. I also didn't need to try and get Matt Amorello moved aside. It's just the right thing to do, and I want to get it cleaned up in the time I have left."
Also yesterday, Douglas MacDonald, former executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority who is now secretary of transportation in Washington state, said he would be interested in talking about the Turnpike Authority job if he were approached by the Romney administration but no one has contacted him.
Romney told reporters last week that after canceling his political trips in the immediate aftermath of the accident, he expected to start traveling again; next month the governor is expected at a host of out-of-town GOP events, including in Michigan, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and California. Romney reiterated yesterday that he would be in Massachusetts any time his presence was required.
``Any time I need to be there, I will be there," said Romney, who flew to Iowa yesterday morning and was flying back last night after giving the keynote address at a Republican fund-raiser in Cedar Rapids.
At the fund-raiser, Romney addressed 175 local Republican activists and donors, speaking about the cultural, economic, and military challenges facing the country but did not mention the Big Dig.
``Our mission is not accomplished yet," he said. ``Our mission is to spread the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness throughout the world."
Romney also touched on other themes yesterday. He said that he supported Israel's much-criticized use of force in Lebanon. He also said that any reform to US immigration laws should deal with enforcing the borders before there's even a discussion about a guest-worker program.
He also highlighted his role in a landmark healthcare plan in Massachusetts that he signed into law in April. He said he could envision being on a panel with New York Democratic Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton -- a potential White House rival who led a failed effort for universal health insurance 12 years ago -- and being asked how his plan differed.
``I'll say, `That's easy. Mine got done,' " he said.
Senate majority leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, was scheduled to be here for several events, as was Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.