Romney is getting ready for '08

Robert Novak

6/16/2005 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak

PONTIAC, Mich. -- Any real doubt that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination should have been resolved by his performance Monday in suburban Oakland County, Mich. He did not merely drop into his native state for a political fund-raising speech. He spent a 12-hour candidate's day working a key presidential primary state.

 Romney's public exposure was less than two hours at the Marriott Hotel in Pontiac for the 13th annual event sponsored by Rep. Joe Knollenberg. But in closed-door meetings starting at 8 a.m., he conferred with Republican politicians and donors. Although Romney sought no commitments and made no promises of his candidacy, the assumption by everybody here is that he will not seek re-election as governor in 2006.

 Indeed, Romney's preparation for 2008 is more advanced than any of his potential Republican rivals. While he recently spoke in his neighboring state of New Hampshire, Romney's Commonwealth fund has raised and distributed $225,000, concentrated in three early primary states: Iowa, South Carolina and Michigan.

 This early campaign is being put together by famed political consultant Mike Murphy, who is California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's closest political adviser and who worked for Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign in 2000. Trent Wisecup, a partner in Murphy's firm, arranged Monday's schedule. Wisecup and Murphy, both Michigan natives, were in the audience at the Marriott.

 Romney began his long day over breakfast with Ed Levy, a nationally known leader in the Jewish community. That was followed by meetings with Romney's older brother, Scott, a prominent Michigan Republican, and builder John Rakolta, a major party contributor. He met some 20 Republicans for lunch and in the afternoon, including Dick DeVos (of the Amway family), the probable Republican nominee for governor. Romney talked about the need to elect DeVos and Republican candidates for governor elsewhere in '06, and the Republicans expressed fear of Hillary Clinton in '08.

 Michigan is central to Romney's presidential hopes. It has been 36 years since George Romney, his father, served three terms as governor of Michigan, and the name is no longer familiar in the state. Mitt left Michigan at age 18 to attend Brigham Young University and has never lived here since. But Romney has made several political visits to the state, including three days starting last Saturday with his 40th class reunion at the elite Cranbrook school in Oakland County.

 Romney strategists would like Michigan's still-unscheduled presidential primary to come as early as possible in 2008 to give their man a boost. They support efforts by the state's party regulars to close the primary to non-Republicans, averting a repetition of McCain's 2000 Michigan primary win on the backs of Democratic and independent voters.

 But the Romney team opposes Republican State Chairman Saul Anuzis' attempts to return to a caucus system, fearing that Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas could mobilize the same constituency that flocked to televangelist Pat Robertson in 1988.

 For old-timers, Romney was reminiscent of his father's assaults on Big Labor and Big Business. Warning that the United States is facing stiff competition from China and India, he urged "our labor unions to recognize that we're in this together" and should work to "preserve the employers in the very country where they earn their living." At the same time, he admonished corporate CEOs "to be less concerned about their own compensation."

 However, Mitt Romney lacks George Romney's bombast. Nor is he his liberal Republican father's son when it comes to ideology. In introducing Romney, pro-life stalwart Knollenberg noted that "this party is looking for a very conservative candidate." Romney responded with an agenda of tax reduction and slimmed-down spending and opposition to federally financed embryonic stem cell research and same-sex marriage. He wisecracked about the liberalism of Massachusetts, suggesting, "You need a passport" to enter Cambridge (home of Harvard).

 Behind the scenes, Republican politicians ask each other the same question that went unanswered when George Romney sought the 1968 nomination: Can a Mormon be elected president of the United States? Nobody talks about it, as Mitt Romney meticulously prepares the field for 2008, but that potential bias is his one great liability as a presidential candidate.