For a man who says he doesn't have his eye on the White House, former Utah Olympic leader Mitt Romney is sure looking like a future presidential candidate these days.
Romney will address the Republican National Convention this week in prime time, reportedly just before Vice President Dick Cheney speaks Wednesday to the delegates gathered in New York City.
Romney is already serving as a surrogate in President Bush's reelection campaign. Beginning Monday, he'll play a prominent role in the president's preconvention national tour alongside U.S. Sen. John McCain and other GOP leaders.
Add those events to the Massachusetts governor's high-profile stance against gay marriage and a multistate tour promoting his new book, "Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership and the Olympic Games" and Romney is clearly raising his national profile.
But is he positioning himself for a run at the presidency?
"I'm working on being a good governor," Romney said in a recent interview with the Deseret Morning News. "I've got a tough job ahead of me, a lot of things I'd like to do as governor. . . . We'll see what the future holds, and hopefully it holds another term as governor."
He won't be up for reelection until 2006 two years before the next presidential election.
Utahns will remember that Romney kept his political ambitions to himself during the more than three years he spent here as head of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. His plans weren't revealed until after he left for Massachusetts shortly after the 2002 Winter Games.
Much as he is doing now, Romney stayed mum for months as he monitored the Massachusetts governor's race. He didn't declare his candidacy until he appeared to be the only Republican ready to run in the largely Democratic state.
Call it the "White Knight" approach.
That's the title bestowed on Romney when he was recruited to save the Salt Lake Games from the bid scandal. Then a Boston businessman, Romney waited quietly in the wings until Utah officials were ready to announce his appointment.
It's a pattern that Romney is likely to repeat as he considers running for president.
Longtime friend Fraser Bullock, who served under Romney as SLOC's chief operating officer and, before that, with him at a Boston venture capital firm, said the pair have talked about the possibility.
"I've told him I think it would be a good idea if he ran at some point, because I know first-hand how capable he is," Bullock said. "What he said to me is he was focused on the work at hand, whatever it was, the Olympics or being governor of Massachusetts."
Bullock said his experience is that "Mitt is not seeking these things," whether it's leading the organizing committee or a government. "He's not one that I have the sense has programmed everything out. He just sees the opportunity for public service and responds to it."
Political observers say Romney appears to be readying himself for that opportunity in 2008.
"I definitely see him positioning himself," Christopher Malone, a political science professor at Pace University in New York City, said after meeting Romney during the Democratic National Convention in Boston earlier this summer.
Malone said he was impressed with how the Massachusetts Republican came across during an address to a group of college students participating in a political internship program at the convention.
"He said, 'Look, I'm a Republican in a heavily Democratic state, at a Democratic convention, and I want to talk to you about what it looks like from the other side.' He defended Bush's policies forcefully. He did it respectfully," Malone said.
Romney even looked the part of a national candidate. "Talk about photogenic, telegenic and just polished, he's got it all," Malone said. "I could see him grooming himself and being groomed for higher office. He definitely has a presence about himself that is presidential."
The GOP wasn't able to take advantage of that presence during the Democratic convention, however. Romney refused that week to participate in the political attacks against John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee and Massachusetts' junior senator.
"I made it very clear I was there as a host, not as a partisan, for one week," Romney said. He said the Bush camp was told that during the convention, "my responsibility as the host governor had to be to welcome, and not to bash and embarrass."
Now he's free to resume his surrogate role through the November election. Romney said he'll continue to travel on behalf of the president to "places where I can be of help," likely accompanied by other GOP elected officials.
He first hit the campaign trail during the New Hampshire primary in January. "The president can't be everywhere," Romney said. "He didn't want the airwaves to be filled with Kerry alone, so I was there to be interviewed and to get our message out."
For political observers, Romney's willingness to work for the president's reelection shows he's focused on his own future. "By paying his dues now and being a loyal foot soldier, he will endear a lot of the Bush folks to him if and when he decides to run," Malone said.
Bruce Bartlett, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis in Washington, D.C., said Romney's participation in the president's reelection campaign would matter more if he could deliver Massachusetts to Bush.
That's virtually an impossible feat in a state that's dominated by Democrats the way Utah is by Republicans.
"There's no question I can't do much for him in Massachusetts," Romney said. "If I were President Bush or (running) his campaign, I would not spend any money or time in Massachusetts or Utah. . . . Utah and Massachusetts are parallel universes."
Being from Massachusetts would also hurt Romney's chances of winning his party's nomination, Bartlett said. "Massachusetts is about as far off the radar screen from the point of view of Republicans as you could possibly be," Bartlett said. "He's a foreigner."
Romney has tried to establish his conservative credentials through taking a strong stand against gay marriage, which was legalized in Massachusetts in a recent court ruling. Joe Cannon, the head of Utah's Republican Party, said the issue is a gift for Romney.
"He gets to act like a total right-winger on the gay rights thing. History has thrust greatness upon him as far as right-wingers are concerned," Cannon said. Even so, Utah's GOP leader said, Romney will have a hard time getting the Republican nomination from a liberal state.
Bartlett suggested Romney might set his sites lower. "He's probably more viable as a vice president than as a presidential nominee," Bartlett said. "The idea that someone from the Northeast could get the nomination strikes me as unlikely."
Romney laughs at the suggestion he might seek the second spot on the GOP ticket. "That'd be something you'd want to stay governor for," he said.
So far, no candidate has emerged as the likely GOP choice for 2008. Whether or not Bush wins in November, Bartlett and others have said the race is wide open at this point since Cheney, Bush's vice president, is not expected to run because of health issues.
Other candidates who've been mentioned include two New Yorkers, Gov. George Pataki and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, as well as Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel and even the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Utah Sen. Bob Bennett favors another GOP governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, but he's prohibited from running for president because he was not born in the United States.
"If Schwarzenegger had not been born in Austria, he'd be the obvious choice. He's the governor of the nation's largest state. A Republican with a 65 percent approval rating in a heavily Democratic state," Bennett said. "This guy's got serious political credentials."
Romney does have something that even the former movie star turned politician can't claim the Olympics. Not only did Romney transform the Salt Lake Games from scandal to success, he did it only months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against America.
All of it is outlined in his new book, which is widely seen as a promotional tool for a possible presidential bid. Some political observers, though, questioned how effective the 2002 Olympics will be with voters considering the 2008 race.
"It's a long time ago," said Robert C. Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State. "In the immediate afterglow, it might help." Smith noted that Peter Ueberroth, head of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, tried a similar tactic but didn't get very far.
Malone, the professor from New York City, said the public won't remember until they're prompted by a political campaign. He said if Romney runs, he'll use his Olympic experience to tell voters about himself, just as Kerry has Vietnam.
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