Hamlet on the Charles: Weld for White House?

He's popular at home, but some question how his tune would carry across country in '96 race

DURING the modest inaugural parade celebrating the start of his second term, Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R) seemed at one point momentarily absent. Standing in a rumpled black overcoat in freezing weather on the reviewing stand, he blinked and fixed on a distant point while bagpipers passed by.

If this were a momentary muse on his prospects for a more splendid inauguration parade some day down Pennsylvania Avenue, few might be surprised.

For after a landslide victory returned him to Boston's gold-domed statehouse, Mr. Weld is now positioned in that cluster of highly visible Republican governors mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 1996.

Indeed, no sooner had the inauguration here ended than William Floyd Weld was on a plane to Washington. Along with 29 other GOP governors, he met the next morning with his new friend and ally House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia to discuss shifting power to the states and ending unfunded federal mandates.

A week later, Weld was back on Capitol Hill again, this time discussing his ideas on welfare reform - an issue he plans to make a central theme of his next four years in office, as he did his first.

Behind all the speculation and mileage-plus maneuvering, though, looms a basic question: Can a carrot-topped wealthy Republican, the father of five teenagers and lover of Nabokov novels, actually make it to the White House?

Some observers insist that Weld, no matter how successful as governor, may be a man for whom politics is forever temporary duty.

``One wonders if he really has that fire-in-the-belly, that deep ambition to be president,'' says presidential historian and Massachusetts resident Doris Kearns Goodwin. ``He's been able to turn Massachusetts around and project a national image of intelligence and wit. But at this point we don't know if he has that strong desire to go stand in the snows of a New Hampshire primary.''

Weld is circumspect about the future. Currently, he emphasizes his role as a contributor to Republican policymaking, saying he will serve out his term as governor, thank you.

Coupled with his fiscal accomplishments, Weld's mixture of benign casualness and verbal agility has made him personally popular, if a bit of a political mystery. A former federal prosecutor and summa cum laude graduate of Harvard, he is not a combative Republican in the Gingrich mode. He seems, alternatively, to be a Brahmin populist in Republican cloth or a social centrist posing as a fiscal tightwad.

In his first elected office, he helped rescue the state from virtual insolvency by slashing budget expenditures, axing the state payroll by 12 percent, cutting bloated agencies, reducing taxes, and increasing fees. All this from a Republican in a state considered a liberal stronghold. All this while facing a Democratic-controlled legislature. Yet he didn't just wave a magic wand: He was helped by two big tax increases passed late in the Dukakis years that helped balance the budget.

He supports gay rights, is pro-choice on abortion, and approves of the death penalty despite fuzzy language in supporting it. ``He was successful in separating himself from the run-of-the-mill politicians here,'' says Arnie Miller, a former director of White House personnel and now president of Isaacson Miller, an executive recruitment company in Boston.

``I voted for him the first time,'' says Mr. Miller, ``because I thought he had integrity, but not the second time. Among various things he did that upset me was to have corporate leaders pay to have breakfast with him.''

Weld eased business taxes in his first term, and took corporate heads with him on trade missions. Venture capital is flowing again into the state, and unemployment is now 5.7 percent, slightly above the national average.

Like other GOP governors, Weld urged the legislature to approve his ``recipient must work'' welfare reform program. But he failed to hammer out a compromise bill last year. His veto of a bill means that welfare payments in the state will run out Feb. 28, a deadline that Weld is using to force the legislature to join him in shaping a reform package.

He told a congressional committee he was willing to accept $60 million less in federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children money to shape welfare reform to fit Massachusetts's needs.

If states assume responsibility for welfare decisions, Weld says he would abolish cash welfare payments and use the funds instead for child care and medical costs.

Advocates for the poor call him ``punitive'' because he wants welfare benefits capped and recipients working after 60 days.

By trumpeting welfare reform, though, Weld has grabbed an issue at the top of the agenda in Washington and across the country. In his inaugural speech, he touched on several other topics that may punctuate his second term, including education reform.

He suggested private donations be used to offset cuts in state funding for schools.

He also championed the need to help children - which brought a standing ovation - even though his administration has cut the state budget for the Office for Children $3 million over three years.

His stands on these and other issues will come under greater scrutiny as New Hampshire nears. Already, some of this has started. One local newspaper recently challenged him on his draft record - he was deferred during the Vietnam War.

Critics have accused him of ``flip-flopping'' on some issues, such as gambling.

Still, if Weld's second term mirrors the success of his first, and he encounters no major political setbacks, analysts such as Goodwin say his stature on the national scene will increase.

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