PROVIDENCE, R.I — It's not every month that a Massachusetts politician stars on the covers of two leading conservative publications. Both The Weekly Standard and National Review feature Republican Gov. Mitt Romney as a potential presidential candidate. Mr. Romney is now out testing the waters for 2008, and what an interesting adventure it's been.
Here's the big mystery: How will Romney square what he says he believes before a national audience with what he's said in Massachusetts? I can assure you, the two groups don't want the same story.
Romney has recently been trying to impress conservatives in South Carolina, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah. One unlovely tactic is to speak ill of the people back home in Massachusetts. He says that his political life in a liberal region has been something of a trial. "Being the only red dot in Massachusetts is a little difficult and sometimes high stress," he complains.
The claim to red-dot loneliness is highly exaggerated. The three Massachusetts governors before Romney were all Republicans. And three of his five fellow New England governors are also Republicans.
Romney's best applause line is that "being a conservative Republican in Massachusetts is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention." The thing is, Romney is not a conservative Republican in Massachusetts. He is a moderate.
Romney ran for governor on a sensible pro-business, pro-environment platform. He was also pro-gay rights, if not pro-gay-marriage. As for abortion, he was "personally opposed," but wanted it to be "safe and legal in this country." New York's former Gov. Mario Cuomo, a liberal Democrat, said the exact same thing.
Anti-abortion activists have not responded warmly to these fine tunings. Michigan is an early primary state where the Romney name means something. Mitt is son of that state's late Gov. George Romney. But when he turned up at a state Republican fundraiser, the American Family Association of Michigan condemned his position on abortion. The group also panned his stance on gay marriage, whatever it is.
Massachusetts is the only state that permits same-sex marriage. Back in Massachusetts, Romney says he wants to replace gay marriage with civil unions. In conservative states, he's against both.
"If the choice is between marriage and civil unions, I support civil unions," Romney said in Michigan. "But my preference is neither civil unions nor marriage." Expect that kind of complexity in the months to come.
Between now and 2008 comes 2006, when Romney would face reelection for governor. He confronts three scenarios, one unattractive and two very unattractive. The unattractive one is that he doesn't run for reelection. That means he could enter the presidential race as holder of no office. The good part is he could better put Massachusetts behind him. The very unattractive scenarios involve another run for governor. In one, he loses - good odds given how unamusing the folks back home find his Bay State bashing. That would make him damaged political goods. The other very unattractive scenario is he wins. Then he'd have to run for president denying everything he'd just said to get reelected in Massachusetts.
As Romney tries to figure out who he should be, he should consider the possibility of being himself. A moderate from Massachusetts might not enchant the Republicans' conservative base. But in a national election, it would play well with independent voters. It is the Democratic Party, not the Republican Party, that dare not nominate someone from Massachusetts.
A Romney who's real wouldn't have to defend his Mormon background. Most Christian churches take great issue with the Mormon explanation of God and creation. Many evangelicals will especially want to delve into his religious convictions. It's impossible to reconcile Mormon beliefs with those of most Christian conservatives. But abandoning his beliefs wouldn't earn Romney much admiration. It would be no prettier than his habit of dismissing Massachusetts voters who elected him. Disloyalty is a trait few people want to reward.
Romney's in a tight spot, all right. My guess is that he'll enjoy the national attention, skip the governor's race, then take his Harvard law and business degrees back to Boston. That's where he started a successful venture-capital company. There's something nicely straightforward about venture capital.
• Froma Harrop is an editorial writer at The Providence Journal. ©2005 The Providence Journal. Distributed by Creators Syndicate, Inc.