Romney is a sign that 2008 campaign is off to a premature start

A. J. Atchue

The 2004 presidential election is only four months in the rear-view mirror, and already the media, interest groups, and politicians are starting to focus on the 2008 campaign. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but it can certainly get to be a bit much.

Take the example of Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Ever since his noteworthy victory as a Republican in a heavily Democratic state in 2002, the Boston media and local politicos have seemed to hold the assumption that he would eventually run for president in 2008. Thus, every position he has taken and speech he has made in the past few months have been viewed in the context of Romney building a national image.

The first issue is gay marriage and civil unions. In November 2003, as you may recall, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided to impose gay marriage on the state via a 5-4 decision. In February 2004, the state legislature took a step toward passing a constitutional amendment that would prohibit gay marriage but allow for civil unions, similar to what is legal in Vermont.

But last week, the Massachusetts Log Cabin Republicans, a group that supports gay marriage, accused Romney of flip-flopping on the entire issue. They point to statements he made in the 2002 campaign supporting some benefits for gay and lesbian couples. What the group fails to realize is that a big gulf exists between “some benefits” and outright gay marriage. Romney’s position on this issue has not changed. Maybe people just can’t understand it.

Another lightning rod issue is embryonic stem cell research. In that same South Carolina speech, Romney blasted leading Democrats for supporting a procedure that essentially creates a human embryo temporarily for research, and promptly destroys it. Massachusetts Democrats then tore into Romney for attempting to cast a right-wing image on the issue nationally while maintaining moderate views at home. But is opposition to stem cell research really right-wing?

In addition, Massachusetts Democrats are annoyed at the fact that Romney is increasingly blasting his home state to appeal to the Southern conservatives that dominate Republican primaries. For instance, in the South Carolina speech, Romney equated being a Republican in Massachusetts to being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention. If there’s one thing the local Democrats’ whining tells us, it’s that they don’t like having their dominance mocked by a successful local Republican.

There’s really no need to beat around the bush here. I believe Romney will run for president in 2008, and overall I think he’d be strong candidate. But another key question is whether he’ll run for re-election for governor in 2006. He faces a paradox. It’s certainly true that national Republicans are looking for conservative values when choosing a presidential nominee, and Romney seems to have them. But in Massachusetts, Romney would need to emphasize his moderate side to pass the test of an overwhelmingly liberal electorate. He ran an outstanding campaign of this sort in 2002, and combined with the incompetence of his opponent, it won him the corner office.

Romney has said he will seek re-election, but it’s really anyone’s guess. The prospect of losing re-election and then seeking the presidency two years later is likely not a scenario he looks upon favorably. However, winning a second term as governor in highly Democratic Massachusetts would look even more impressive to national voters. It’s a tough call.

In the meantime, I wish everyone involved could tone down the rhetoric a bit. Romney is not re-inventing himself as a conservative, as some allege. He’s not flip-flopping on anything. Let Romney travel around, make his decisions, and don’t forget that 2008 is still a long way off.