Romney rides volatile issue onto US stage

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

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

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.

Later, in a Wall Street Journal opinion article, he offered advice to other governors combating gay marriage.

National prominence is not new to Romney, who challenged Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) in 1994 and in 2002 was largely credited with stabilizing the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, which had been rocked by ethics violations.

National profile on the rise

Analysts believe he is using the gay-marriage debate to build on his national profile. Some suggest he is being groomed as a possible replacement for vice president Dick Cheney on Bush's 2004 presidential ticket.

The move would fit a pattern established when Richard Nixon tapped Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts to help take John Kennedy, and Michael Dukakis's pick of Lloyd Bentsen to campaign against fellow Texan George H.W. Bush.

"It's a way of finding someone who is able to take on Kerry, and step on your opponent in their own backyard," says Michael Goldman, a Democratic political consultant.

Others observe that Romney could have an eye on John Kerry's Senate seat or run for the presidency down the road.

Either way, the gay marriage issue helps him accomplish two crucial tasks: win some national attention, and gain the favor of conservative politicians and activists who increasingly determine the composition of the party's national ticket.

"He's making inroads with the conservative base that is so integral to the success of a Republican candidate on the national scale," says Craig Rimmerman, a political scientist at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.

It's not easy being from Bay State

It's an awkward alliance for a governor from a heavily Democratic state. But it might be a necessary risk if Romney is eyeing national office.

Liberal Republicans from Massachusetts have had difficulty advancing in their own party. The most resonant example: Senate Republicans' refusal to OK the appointment of Governor Weld ambassador to Mexico.

"The Weld example for local Republicans is that you can't get a national job if you fraternize with the enemy," says Mr. DiNatale.

A special burden is carried by Republicans from the Northeast, where GOP senators from Maine and Rhode Island represent some of President Bush's strongest opponents, and where Vermont Sen. James Jeffords dropped his GOP affiliation altogether.

"Romney's trying to show that he's a different kind of Northeast Republican," says Mr. Goldman.

Social litmus tests shifting

But Romney's behavior does not strike all experts as unexpected for Massachusetts.

Capitulation to same-sex unions, they say, would require a far more liberal stance than passive support of abortion rights. The litmus test for being a liberal on social issues in America has been ratcheted up.

"I think that gay marriage moved the social agenda to a point beyond where most Republicans can endorse it," says Dennis Hale, a political scientist at Boston College.

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