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Elise Amendola, Associated Press
Gov. Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, stand on Massachusetts Statehouse steps for a 19-gun salute as he completes his term in office.

Mitt Romney moved closer to becoming a presidential candidate Wednesday by establishing an exploratory committee — and wasting no time in scheduling a major fund-raising event next week involving several prominent Utahns.

Members of the Huntsman and Eccles families are expected to be among the nearly 200 business and community leaders from around the country who'll gather in Boston on Monday to make calls to their contacts to raise money for the Republican.

Romney, whose successor as Massachusetts governor will be sworn in today, has yet to formally declare he's in the 2008 race. But the former Utah Olympic leader is promising an announcement "in the near future" on his new campaign Web site, www.mittromney.com.

"After talking to my family, I have decided to take this initial step of forming an exploratory committee in order to raise the resources and build the campaign organization required to pursue the highest office in the country," Romney said in a statement posted on the Web site.

Sounding much like a candidate already, he also said in the statement that he looks "forward to continuing to talk with the American people to determine the best way we can meet a new generation of challenges."

An announcement he's running could come shortly after the "National Call Day" fund-raiser, which is anticipated to raise at least $1 million and possibly much more. The money will go into the newly created "Romney for President Exploratory Committee."

Paperwork was filed with the Federal Election Commission Wednesday to set up the committee, widely seen as the first phase of a presidential campaign. In fact, Romney's Web site points out that once he declares his candidacy, only the committee name will change.

Unlike the Commonwealth Political Action Committees set up some two years ago to support GOP candidates in key primary states, including South Carolina, the money raised by the exploratory committee can be spent directly on Romney's presidential bid.

The form lists no financial information beyond the address of his bank in Washington, D.C., but does list a headquarters in Boston and Charles Spies as the "Custodian of Records" and Darrell W. Crate as the treasurer.

The other two major GOP presidential contenders, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, both formed presidential exploratory committees in November.

Neither, though, has declared they're definitely running. Craig Goldman, a spokesman for the "John McCain 2008 Exploratory Committee," said Romney's move Wednesday won't have any effect on what McCain does.

"None whatsoever. He'll make the decision on his own. Other potential campaigns won't make the decision for him," Goldman said, noting that while there are now three GOP candidates with exploratory committees, "I imagine there will be many more to come."

McCain counts among his supporters both Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. The governor's father, billionaire philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr., and brother, David, back Romney.

Huntsman Sr. was invited to participate in next week's Romney fund-raiser but is unable to attend. Developer David Huntsman, however, plans to travel to Boston and make calls on Romney's behalf.

Romney supporters received an e-mail late Wednesday thanking them for "agreeing to help him as he takes this first important step toward becoming our president" and advising them they can give up to $2,100 individually or $4,200 as a couple.

Although some Romney supporters have pushed for him to declare his candidacy next Monday, it appears that announcement may be several weeks away. That's probably a wise strategy, University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said.

"One of the problems of declaring too soon is your announcement becomes old news quickly," Burbank said. Waiting is "a good position to be in, rather than early on standing out there in the spotlight. ... Next week would be considered too soon."

Kelly Patterson, director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Election and Democracy, said the next step for Romney is deciding how best to make his aspirations known.

The timing and location should "help voters understand and visualize why the candidacy is so important," he said, adding it should be "something that fits with a candidate's personality and aspirations but also maximizes visibility."

Contributing: Suzanne Struglinski

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com