Massachusetts' Romney Puts Name in Ring

Outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney files papers to form his presidential exploratory committee. The important first step allows Romney to raise money for his presidential bid. He enters a field of likely Republican candidates that includes Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Today, Mitt Romney took a first step toward a presidential campaign. Just hours before stepping down as governor of Massachusetts, Romney filed paperwork setting up an exploratory presidential campaign committee. That move allows him to start raising money.

As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, Romney will be trying to sell himself to voters as a fiscal and social conservatives from one of the nation's most progressive states.

TOVIA SMITH: Ask the last three Massachusetts guys who ran for president. Having a home address in this decidedly liberal state turned out to be not such a good thing. But Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas and John Kerry were Democrats. As a Republican, Mitt Romney is hoping his left-leaning home state will work to his advantage.

(Soundbite of crowd of people)

Former Governor MITT ROMNEY (Possible Presidential Candidate): You can't imagine, you simply can't imagine, what it's like to have -

SMITH: Speaking to conservative groups around the nation, like this recent meeting of the National Review Online, Romney's been using Massachusetts as a foil to prove his conservative bona fides.

Former Governor ROMNEY: On the one side, we have the Kennedy apologist, knee-jerk Clinton supporters, and on the other in the media, we have the liberals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Indeed, as Massachusetts has cemented its liberal reputation by becoming the only sate to allow gay marriage, Romney, a squeaky clean father of five who married his high school sweetheart, has built his name as a conservative, willing to fight even in the heart of enemy territory for what the governor calls traditional marriage and family values.

Former Governor ROMNEY: Marriage is not primarily about adults. Marriage is about the nurturing and development of children.

(Soundbite of applause)

SMITH: But Romney first ran for office here in 1994 for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat as a social moderate. Back then, he supported abortion rights, gays in the military and even vowed to be a stronger advocate for gay rights than Kennedy, and that's left some conservative like Tom McClusky of the Family Research Council, somewhat leery.

Mr. TOM McCLUSKY (Family Research Council): It does bring up the question of opportunism. Has he grown in office, or is he merely just speaking to an audience that he knows he needs to win over?

SMITH: For his part, Romney says his thoughts have evolved. The positive spin on that is that he's open to listen and learn. Romney's described as an intellectual who welcomes a good challenge and a pragmatist who's especially confident in crisis mode.

Former Governor ROMNEY: Instead, we're looking at the safety of the entire system for the traveling public. I take responsibility for this work -

SMITH: After a Boston woman was killed in a big-dig tunnel by a falling ceiling panel in July, Romney seized control of the troubled $15-billion highway project, fired the guy in charge and launched a massive inquiry into fraud and mismanagement.

The dramatic rescue is kind of his MO. As a businessman, he co-founded the hugely successful investment arm of Bain & Company and ultimately saved the firm from going under. Later, he rescued the 2002 Olympics from the grip of corruption and scandal. And as governor, he's been given credit for bailing out Massachusetts' budget deficit and for using a crisis in health care to pass breakthrough coverage for the uninsured.

Mr. TOM RATH (Republican Strategist): Mitt Romney is the problem-solver triumphant, and for Mitt Romney, I think this is his moment.

SMITH: Republican strategist has been helping lay groundwork for Romney in New Hampshire. He describes the governor as having the big-vision thing, as well as a passion for detail.

Mr. RATH: I've been at several campaign dinners with him where he'll say now everybody who wants beef, put your hand up. Everybody who wants chicken, put your hand up. Everyone who wants fish, put your hand up. He's a person who craves organization, craves direction, and I think this country's going to respond to that.

SMITH: But Romney is already facing increasing scrutiny about his stewardship of the Massachusetts economy, and a big question hanging over him is whether voters are willing to elect a Mormon. Many Christian conservatives see the Mormon church as more cultish than Christian, and polls show a significant number of voters would not vote for a Mormon for president.

In Massachusetts, Romney has dismissed questions of his religion outright, but nationally, he faces a more delicate task, trying to downplay the Mormon factor while still reminding his core voters that he's a man of faith, as he did in this interview, on ABC 4, a local TV station in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Former Governor ROMNEY: They'll judge the person on their character, capability, vision, leadership. Those are the things that will make the difference, and they'll either measure up or they won't.

SMITH: Ultimately, the religion question may leave Romney hoping voters connect him to that other Massachusetts guy who ran for president, John F. Kennedy, who was elected in 1960 amid questions of whether Americans would ever vote for a Catholic.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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