Four stars lead early GOP race

Mitt Romney is the most recent entrant for the 2008 presidential nomination. Polls this early are mostly driven by name recognition.

Could Mitt Romney, ex-governor of Massachusetts and not well known nationally, end up winning the Republican nomination for president in 2008?

In a word, yes – despite prospects that don't look particularly strong on paper, analysts say. The latest polling out of states with the earliest nominating contests, which begin in a year, shows Mr. Romney in single digits. Even in neighboring New Hampshire, he comes in fourth, behind Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who won the New Hampshire primary in 2000, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

But in a week that saw Romney launch his presidential exploratory committee, allowing him to enter the all-important money race, the Republican field is fluid. Religious conservatives, a key GOP constituency, remain skeptical of Senator McCain. And his advocacy for a stepped-up US presence in Iraq has thrown his political future squarely in line with a war that few believe is going well.

Mr. Giuliani, well known for his 9/11 leadership, remains untested on the national political stage and holds liberal positions on social issues that put him at odds with many GOP primary voters (as well as a colorful personal life).

Speaker Gingrich has, for now, become a repository of support among conservatives, though his short tenure as speaker and his three marriages could cause him to wilt under the klieg lights.

Enter Romney: successful businessman, savior of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, with an attractive family. Having won the governorship of liberal Massachusetts as a moderate Republican in 2002, he then sought to remake his national image by adopting conservative positions on abortion, gay rights, and stem cells. But many Republicans remain leery. And among Evangelical conservatives, Romney's Mormon faith can also be a hurdle.

Still, in the end, political analysts can see a clear path by which Romney becomes the GOP nominee, almost by default. Republicans "want to win in November [2008]," says Ed Sarpolus, an independent pollster in Michigan who dismisses Gingrich's and Giuliani's chances. "If McCain self-destructs because of Iraq, even in New Hampshire they'll hold their nose and vote for Mitt Romney."

Push to sell the Romney brand

Romney's single-digit numbers among Iowa and South Carolina Republicans can be attributed to low name recognition; he's just getting started in earnest. But New Hampshirites know Romney. Among GOP activists there, he is well-organized and has secured some big names, such as Tom Rath, who is stepping down as a national GOP committeeman to join Romney's campaign. But among regular folk, particularly those in the well-populated southern tier who consume Boston media, anti-Romney coverage has become a staple.

As a red governor of a solidly blue state with an eye on national office, Romney was caught in a tough place.

"Republicans are suspicious of what kind of Republican that makes him," says Dick Bennett, head of American Research Group, a nonpartisan polling firm. "I don't know what Republicans will end up wanting to have. He's in the hunt, but [among Republicans in New Hampshire] there isn't any loyalty to Massachusetts."

That's bad news for Romney.

Next January, Romney will be expected to perform respectably in New Hampshire – if not winning the primary, at least coming close.

"He's got to do well; it's right next door," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. "There's no excuse for him."

If Romney can achieve that, he may find safe harbor in Michigan – his native state, where his late father remains a beloved former governor – and home to an early primary contest that will come soon after the first wave. Already, Michigan political analysts are assuming that their GOP primary will boil down to McCain versus Romney, with the usual caveats. And if Iraq remains the No. 1 issue on voters' minds a year from now, McCain may be in serious trouble.

The question, though, is whether the Michigan primary will come in time for Romney.

That ol' McCain magic

His first hurdle – doing well in New Hampshire – is a big one. McCain remains a rock star in the state, having kept alive his strong political machine from the 2000 primaries.

For Romney, local analysts don't see the Mormon issue hurting him much in New Hampshire, but they do see a problem in the drumbeat of negative Boston media about his tenure as governor.

"The media and the voters have a beef with him, because he pretty much abandoned ship a half year ago," says Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor at Boston University and sometime Democratic political consultant. "My guess is that he saw himself as a lame duck no matter what, so why bang his head against the wall. ... He was trying to run for president, but it's also a pretty hopeless state for most Republicans to get their agenda achieved."

Mr. Sabato does not see Romney's challenges as insurmountable, including the need to get over his image as a flip-flopper on social issues.

"Opponents will criticize him and cite this memo and that memo," he says. "That's detail stuff. As long as people believe him when he says, 'Here's where I stand on "fill in the blank," ' and it's simple and to the point, they'll buy it."

Mr. Berkovitz says that, with time, Massachusetts's new, Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, could actually help Romney among Republicans in New Hampshire.

"If the people of New Hampshire see Massachusetts, with a Democratic governor going back to its old ways, Romney's stock could rise a little," he says.

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