THEREíS JUST SOMETHING about Mitt Romney thatís presidential, donít you think? Perhaps itís the rugged jaw line. Or maybe itís the smile that radiates cool, especially on television. Or possibly itís that TV anchormanís head of hair. Regardless, when Romney walked alongside George W. Bush at the launch of the Olympics last winter, viewers would have been forgiven if they thought Romney ó and not Bush ó was the actual president.
The question of whether Washington lies in the Belmont residentís future remains in the back of most observersí minds. The chatter about Romney on talk radio centers almost solely on whether heíll finish out his term if elected governor. His rivals make much of it: during the primary campaign, failed lieutenant-governor candidate Jim Rappaport angered Romney by wondering aloud: "If he governs as I think he can, I can see a call from the president ... when the president of the United States calls you ... you donít turn the president down." Even his friends, at least privately, think itís an issue. "Mittís got his eyes on a bigger job than just governor. Heís overqualified for that," one Michigan ally of Romneyís told me this summer.
Itís the last thing Romney wants voters to think about, of course, lest visions of Governor Kerry Healey send independents flocking to the Democrats come November 5. Thatís why his cause wasnít helped last Thursday when good old Big Red, former governor William Weld, fresh from the Big Apple ó the strands of his new Manhattan hairstyle flapping in the wind ó showed up in front of the State House on Romneyís behalf. Symbolizing the Ghost of GOP Governors Past, Weld (whoíd heeded the call himself when asked to serve as ambassador to Mexico, a post for which he was never confirmed) represented the scenario everybody worries about in relation to Romney: Massachusetts elects a charismatic and effective Republican governor; Republican governor gets bored and dreams of Washington; Republican governor takes off.
Itís tough not to think of Romney and the presidency. The association is ever-present. He not only carries himself in a presidential manner, but he also stands to inherit the dubious Massachusetts tradition of Republican-governorship-as-Washington-springboard. His father, George Romney, the former governor of Michigan, ran for president back in 1968. The thought evidently popped into the brain of the elder-statesman-like Ed Brooke, the former liberal Republican senator from Massachusetts, who endorsed Romney last Friday. "Heís a centrist candidate who believes in this country, is a patriot, and he can do the job," Brooke said at a September 20 press conference in front of the State House. "He has the qualifications, I think, you want in a president." The former senator quickly corrected himself with the words "for a governor." But even though it was a mere slip of the tongue, Brooke said aloud what everybody is thinking.
ROMNEY, FOR HIS part, vows to serve out his term if elected. "Iím going to be in four years, if Iím lucky enough to be elected, and eight years, if Iím lucky enough to get a repeat," Romney tells the Phoenix. "Iím in for a full term."
The claim that heíll stay in Massachusetts for at least the length of one full term in the governorís office is one voters can believe. But not because Romney says so. More because the notion that President Bush would turn to a novice first-term governor for a high-level post ó such as vice-president, which the job pundits were talking about several months ago ó is laughable.
"Itís preposterous, absolutely preposterous," chortles Ken Weinstein, the director of the Hudson Instituteís Washington office. "Vice-president is absurd. Bush is more likely to choose Jane Swift. Sheís a woman. Why would he choose a two-year governor of Massachusetts?"
Even if Bush wanted Vice-President Dick Cheney off the ticket in 2004, or if Cheneyís health prevented him from reprising his role, Romney would have to step into a long line of vice-presidential aspirants. With foreign policy paramount these days, Bush would surely look first at two of his key advisers, Secretary of State Colin Powell, or, more likely, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Then there is Bushís friend and fellow former governor Tom Ridge, now head of homeland security. And if Bush wanted to go with a moderate governor of a Northeastern state, he would surely choose George Pataki, if he is re-elected as New York governor in November. Then, of course, thereís the ubiquitous moderate Republican of the moment, Rudolph Giuliani, who has gotten more national airtime this year than perhaps any other Republican with the exception of Bush. Political realities, therefore, support the credibility of Romneyís vow.
Itís almost a given that Romney would not abandon the governorís office for a position lower than that of vice-president. He easily boasts the credentials for an ambassadorial post, such as the one that took former governor Paul Cellucci off to Canada. But that isnít saying much. Anyone who is a rich businessman and has rendered services to the GOP qualifies for that. Given Romneyís performance during the Olympics, his business background, his run against Kennedy in 1994, his personal relationship with the Bush family (George Herbert Walker Bush hosted a fundraiser for Romney at Maineís Cape Arundel Golf Club on September 21), and his fatherís historic role in the Republican Party, Romney could probably do better than an ambassadorship already ó perhaps a low-level administration post (a role in the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Office or an economic-development posting) or even a low-level cabinet position (replacing Norman Mineta as secretary of transportation, or perhaps Don Evans as secretary of commerce). But Romneyís ambitions are clear to anyone paying attention. The man is on a presidential track ó for 2008, not 2004. If heís elected governor, count on him to engage in some serious executive-reputation building and to position himself for a presidential run.