Almost five years after he refused to sign a "no new taxes" pledge during his campaign for governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney announced Thursday that he had done just that, as his campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination began in earnest.
In 2002, Romney broke with his predecessor, Jane Swift, and Republican governors before her by declining to sign a written vow not to raise taxes once in office. The decision disappointed state and national anti-tax activists, but Romney wouldn't be pinned down.
"I'm against tax increases," Romney was quoted as saying at a campaign stop in Springfield that March. "But I'm not intending to, at this stage, sign a document which would prevent me from being able to look specifically at the revenue needs of the Commonwealth."
Romney's gubernatorial campaign spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, dismissed such pledges at the time as "government by gimmickry."
But Thursday, in an indication of Romney's singular focus now on appealing to Republicans nationwide, his exploratory presidential campaign boasted that he was the first prospective 2008 candidate to sign a "taxpayer protection pledge," in which he promised to oppose "any and all efforts" to increase income taxes on people or businesses. The pledge comes from the Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform, which is led by prominent anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist.
"Governor Romney believes that by keeping taxes low and simplifying the tax code, we can grow the economy and enhance American competitiveness," Romney's campaign said in a statement.
Asked about the discrepancy between Romney's position now and in 2002, Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Romney's campaign, said that Romney never raised taxes as governor.
"Signing the pledge now sends a very clear message to those in Washington who have voted against tax relief and for tax hikes that such actions will never grow our regional and national economies," Madden said in an e-mail. "At a time when Democrats in Washington are using code language about their plans to raise taxes and spending, the governor's pledge makes it clear that he opposes those actions."
One of the activists disappointed with Romney in 2002 was Barbara Anderson, president of Massachusetts-based Citizens for Limited Taxation. Thursday, Anderson applauded his decision to sign Norquist's pledge this year.
"I am pleasantly surprised, only because we couldn't talk him into signing it when he was running for governor," she said.
Anderson attributed Romney's shift to four years of working with the Democratic Legislature, and said he now understands that Democrats need such a firm message.
Romney's announcement about signing the pledge came on his first day out of office, and it symbolized what's now his biggest priority: building support from GOP activists and voters, especially in states with early primaries.
Shortly after Romney's successor, Deval Patrick, took his oath of office at the State House Thursday, Romney, donning a presidential-looking red tie, arrived at his new campaign headquarters in the North End to chat briefly with the media and huddle with his political team about the fund-raising work ahead.
A preliminary picture of Romney's fund-raising strategy is already emerging, including a national finance team made up of leading Republican donors and a tiered system of major fund-raisers, modeled after a program President Bush created when he first ran for the White House in 2000.
"At this stage, not having raised a dollar for a presidential exploratory committee, it's a little hard to predict what exactly our figures are going to look like," Romney said, declining to lay out specific fund-raising targets. "But we're very hopeful that we'll be able to raise sufficient funds to mount a very competitive campaign if I choose to go forward with a presidential announcement."
Romney added that his campaign was still only exploratory in nature, and that he would decide in the weeks ahead whether to formally enter the 2008 race.
"We'll begin the effort of raising money and hopefully see the kind of response that would suggest the kind of support I'd need," he said.
That effort will rely, at least in the first month, on a select group called the "first ballot committee," made up of "first ballot chairmen," or those who raise $250,000; "first ballot vice chairmen," those who raise $100,000; and "first ballot members," those who raise $50,000.
Having well-connected fund-raisers with deep Rolodexes is critical to any presidential campaign, because federal campaign finance rules limit contributions to $2,100 per person during the primary.
On Monday, Romney is to convene supporters at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center for what he is calling a "national call day," where volunteers - and Romney himself - will phone contributors and potential contributors around the country. The campaign hopes to raise $1 million from that event.
Thursday, Romney's campaign released the names of some major Republican fund-raisers who will serve as national finance co-chairs. The list includes Meg Whitman, the president and CEO of eBay; Florida developer Mel Sembler, a former Bush fund-raiser and former US ambassador to Italy and Australia; and Ted Welch of Tennessee, a onetime fund-raiser for Senator Lamar Alexander.
Jack Oliver, who was Bush's finance director for the 2000 campaigm, said any candidate running for president will need to raise at least $50 million in 2007 alone.
"Even before the votes are cast in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, one of the first primaries in the Republican presidential race is going to be the money primary," Oliver said.
Romney is also finding creative ways to distance himself from Massachusetts.
On his new website, mittromney.com, one video montage includes snippets of his inaugural speech from Jan. 2, 2003. Romney ended that speech by saying, "God bless the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts." But in the video featured on his campaign website, Romney's words stop at "God bless the people," before the image fades to Romney before an American flag.
William F. Weld, a former Massachusetts governor who was in town Thursday for Patrick's inauguration, said Romney was doing "splendidly" in building support for a presidential campaign.
"He may not be that popular with everybody in Massachusetts," Weld said. "But I'm telling you when that guy talks around the country, he looks and talks and acts and sounds like the next president of the United States."