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In 2008, Will It Be Mormon in America?

From the June 6, 2005 issue: Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney ponders a presidential bid.

Jun 6, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 36 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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In 2004 supporters of Romney formed the Commonwealth Political Action Committee, which has contributed $218,000 to 225 GOP candidates and party organizations in 17 states. In recent months he has spoken to Republican audiences in Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, and South Carolina. "Mitt is testing the waters," says his friend and political consultant Michael Murphy. And the waters in South Carolina are feeling just fine, to judge by what Rick Beltran, chairman of the Spartanburg County GOP, told me. Beltran says the speech Romney gave in Spartanburg on Presidents' Day impressed the audience of about 400, which was made up mostly of "hard R's, the kind of people he'd need to attract to become president."

Romney would have to stand for reelection in 2006 if he were to stay on as governor. He says he'll decide this fall whether to run again. "There are factors that I will consider before making a final decision," he told me during an interview in his office in Boston. Some of those "factors" have to do with a presidential bid. If Romney ran for a second term, and the state's voters denied it, he'd be an implausible presidential candidate. On the other hand, if he won he'd quickly find himself faced, if he still wanted to run for president, with whether he should resign.

Romney says he's been told "the demands of running for national office today are such that the two years prior to the general election you are basically running full time. There are probably some states where the people would say, 'Hey, we are going to elect you as governor and we don't care if you do something else full-time for two years.' But Massachusetts isn't one of those states, New York isn't, Michigan isn't, Ohio isn't." (Texas is one, where George W. Bush ran for reelection in 1998 having told voters he might run for president in 2000.) Romney also has noticed that some rumored 2008 candidates wouldn't be constrained by obligations of office--Bill Frist, who's giving up his Senate seat in 2006, and Rudy Giuliani, who has been the former mayor of New York City for over three years now. "If we look back in history," says Romney, "Ronald Reagan wasn't a sitting governor" when he ran for president, "Howard Dean wasn't a sitting governor. They had finished their responsibilities and were able to focus on the race." Romney also happened to criticize John Kerry for not resigning as senator while he ran for president. "My guess," says Romney, "is that if I were to try that, someone would notice what I'd said before."

Early primary states include Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan, and Arizona. And Romney has advantages in three: New Hampshire, where Boston news is effectively local news, so he already is well known to the state's Republican voters; Michigan, where Romney grew up and his father is remembered fondly; and Arizona, where Mormons, who are almost certainly inclined to look favorably on a Romney candidacy, comprise 6 percent of the population. Romney also knows that a viable presidential candidate must have adequate funds. He has a demonstrated ability to raise money--having done so for the Olympics. But he also has his own fortune--not inherited, but made. Says Murphy, "He'd be an electable Forbes."

Murphy has a theory of presidential elections. "First the party," he says, "and then the country look for the right guy at the right time." The party, via the primaries, will look for a conservative, most definitely. But beyond that it's hard to say what the party will be looking for, because precise issues are not yet in sight. In his speeches to Republican activists, Romney plays off the extremely Democratic state he governs to highlight his conservative credentials. Thus, in Spartanburg, he said, "Being the only red dot in Massachusetts is a little difficult, and sometimes high stress." And: "Being a conservative Republican in Massachusetts is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention." And: "We are not Taxachusetts anymore."

But Romney has also found a way to talk beyond the present moment and toward the unknown political landscape of 2008 by describing challenges to our national security, to the economy, and to the culture. The specific issues he addresses within each category can change with events, but the categories themselves are general enough to last. And making one of them "national security" is smart, for it enables Romney to address matters beyond a governor's jurisdiction--and that must be the top priority of any president. Romney, who spent $300 million protecting 10 Olympic venues for 17 days during the 2002 Winter Games, and who serves on the Homeland Security Advisory Council, believes that "we need much better intelligence, . . . a far more comprehensive and extensive intelligence capability." He is also concerned about "the long-term military threats that we may face as the Asian world emerges economically."