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Romney rides volatile issue onto US stage

A GOP governor threatens to block some gay-marriage licenses in Massachusetts

By Noel C. PaulStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 24, 2004


In liberal Massachusetts, four Republican governors have risen to power, in part, by behaving as much like Democrats as their party would allow.

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Consider William Weld's pro-choice stance on abortion, and Paul Cellucci's proposal to raise the minimum wage. And then there's Jane Swift, who selected one of the state's few openly gay Republican officeholders to serve as her No. 2.

Before acting on major social issues, these politicians often looked left.

But as Massachusetts last week became the first US state to issue same-sex marriage licenses, Gov. Mitt Romney (R) was instead projecting a morally strident tone- more Nixon than Kennedy. A governor whose hallmarks are usually brightness and optimism threatened litigation against town clerks who give licenses to couples who live out of state. The move, which would revive a long-ignored 1913 law limiting the marriage rights of non-Massachusetts residents, came after Mr. Romney had first tried to use his executive authority to block a court mandate legalizing gay unions.

The gambit, capping months in which he has stood as the most visible opponent of gay marriage here, could jeopardize Romney's chances for reelection even as it thrusts him more prominently onto the national stage. Indeed, any political calculations behind his latest moves, experts say, are directed more at winning office in Washington than in Boston.

He could, for example, seek a senate seat vacated if John Kerry wins the presidency, or could seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2008.

"By leading the gay marriage issue, he'll be liked nationally by conservatives," says Lou DiNatale, a political analyst at the University of Massachusetts - Boston. "If he were to become too moderate, too Massachusetts, he wouldn't be able to play the national game."

At the least, the issue lets Romney cast himself as a different kind of Bay State Republican - a moniker that usually indicates someone just slightly to the right of Barbra Streisand.

A growing opposition

During the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Romney said he did not support same-sex civil unions or marriages. Aides say the actions of the squeaky-clean Mormon - who, with his combed-back salt-and-pepper hair, is the picture of propriety - stem from his core beliefs.

"He is simply carrying out his principles," says spokeswoman Shawn Feddeman. "This is not an issue the governor went out looking for."

But many observers say Romney's aggressive stance represents a significant shift from two years ago. Before assuming office, he offered strong support for domestic-partner benefits, which some gay-rights advocates equated with de facto acceptance of civil unions. More important: Romney said he saw no need to pass a state law banning gay marriage.

That changed last November when the state's Supreme Judicial Court made gay marriage legal, thrusting the issue to the center of America's culture war. The debate appeared to favor Republicans.

Romney quickly appeared interested in taking his battle beyond Boston. He was a guest at the White House for two nights shortly before President Bush announced his support of a federal ban on gay marriage.