Romney stumbles out of gate

April 10, 2002|By Jules Witcover

BOSTON -- If Utah Winter Olympics kingpin Mitt Romney were a figure skater, he probably would have lost a point or two from the judges for a mild wobble in his opening performance as this year's Republican nominee for governor of Massachusetts.

Although he easily won the endorsement of the state party's convention last weekend, the 55-year-old son of one-time GOP presidential candidate George Romney earlier made himself a target of flip-flopping charges that had to be smoothed over in meetings with party leaders.

He has gotten heat, particularly in the press, first for saying he didn't intend to run for governor as long as fellow Republican and acting Gov. Jane Swift was seeking election, and then jumping into the race. Then he got more heat for indicating he would remain neutral in the party's competition for lieutenant governor and then bypassing two declared candidates and anointing a choice of his own.

Finally, Mr. Romney's pick to be his running mate, Kerry Murphy Healey, was rebuffed at the state convention, winning support for lieutenant governor from fewer delegates than former state chairman James Rappaport. She will have to face him in the Sept. 17 GOP primary.

Ms. Swift has bowed out of the race for governor in the face of Mr. Romney's strong fund-raising abilities. Her selected running mate, Patrick Guerriero, subsequently also threw himself over the side after conversations with Mr. Romney, partly clearing the way for Mr. Romney to pick Ms. Healey.

That move in turn earned the ire of Mr. Rappaport, like Mr. Romney a wealthy and successful businessman. Mr. Romney was said to feel that Mr. Rappaport's selection for the No. 2 spot would send the wrong message to voters looking for diversity in the GOP ticket.

Ms. Healey, while certainly having the right name for Massachusetts' prominently Irish electorate, has at first blush little to recommend her for the job, which gives its occupant power to run the state in the absence or resignation of the governor. Her only political credential was six months as state party chairman before Mr. Romney anointed her. She had run and lost twice for a seat in the state legislature, and although Mr. Romney denied that he picked her only because she was a woman, the wise guys at the State House saw otherwise.

One of five Democratic gubernatorial candidates is state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, whose own moniker won't hurt her in the land of Paddys and Seans. The others are Senate President Tom Birmingham, former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, former Democratic National Chairman Steven Grossman and former state Sen. Warren Tolman. Mr. Romney leads them all in the latest poll made public.

Picking a lieutenant governor does not, to be sure, carry the same degree of importance as selecting a vice president, which itself too often has been treated cavalierly if not irresponsibly by presidential nominees. But it won't be too surprising if Democrats start calling Ms. Healey a poor man's Dan Quayle, lacking the experience to assume the top job if destiny dictates.

Like the frequency of vice presidents taking over the Oval Office, the rise of Massachusetts lieutenant governors to the Corner Office (of the State House) has a recent history. Ms. Swift moved up when Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci resigned to become ambassador to Canada. Mr. Cellucci moved up when GOP Gov. William Weld resigned before him.

Longtime state Republican leaders such as National Committeeman Ron Kaufman say Mr. Romney's early switches are mere blips on an otherwise very positive screen for a fall GOP victory against a Democratic party with three times more registered voters but lacking a unifying figure. Mr. Weld agrees, saying Mr. Romney is energetic and "fresh," although he ran and lost to Sen. Ted Kennedy by 17 percentage points in 1994.

But, Mr. Kaufman says, Mr. Romney learned much from that defeat and, with his successful Olympics management behind him will be a much better candidate this time around, not facing a Kennedy and offering himself as a "candidate of change" -- although his Republican Party has held the governorship for the last 12 years.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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