It is hard to tell, but the Massachusetts Republican Party will hold its presidential primary next Tuesday and, unlike in 2008, most party leaders are rallying around the state’s former governor, Mitt Romney.
Romney’s supporters include Senator Scott Brown and the head of the state Republican Party. All four Republican state senators and all but one of the 33 Republican state representatives favor Romney. Most Republicans believe Romney will carry Massachusetts overwhelmingly, and even some prominent Republicans who backed other candidates last election are turning to him.
House minority leader Brad Jones said Romney benefits from voters’ focus on economic issues, which were not as pressing in early 2008 and which allow Romney to highlight his resume as a businessman who turned around the 2002 Olympic Games.
On job creation, Jones said, “Romney has a level of experience that is greater than the sum total of all his opponents combined, times a factor of four or five.’’
A Suffolk University poll, conducted from Feb. 11 to 15, found Romney with support from 64 percent of probable Massachusetts Republican voters. Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, was in second place with just 16 percent.
In 2008, Romney won Massachusetts with 51 percent of the vote, while Senator John McCain of Arizona came in second with 41 percent. The three other candidates in this year’s primary appear to have little interest in contesting the state, which is also a good ideological fit for Romney.
However, some Republicans are still upset over Romney’s history in Massachusetts, especially the end of his term as governor when he began to set his eyes on the White House. Then, during the 2008 presidential campaign, he regularly made Massachusetts the punch line in his remarks because of its liberal social culture. He told the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2007 that Massachusetts was “sort of San Francisco East, Nancy Pelosi style.’’
Stephen Zykofsky, a Republican State Committee member from Lynn, said he was unimpressed with Romney’s performance as governor and is leaning toward supporting Santorum.
“I was particularly upset with his last two years, when he was out of the state more than he was in the state,’’ Zykofsky said. “At the same time, never having a good thing to say about Massachusetts.’’
Still, Romney has substantial support in Massachusetts, much of it due to his extensive personal ties. Robert Maginn, chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, worked for Romney at Bain Capital, beginning in 1983, and has helped Romney in all his political campaigns.
Maginn, a Romney fund-raiser, said Romney has “almost 100 percent’’ support among elected state officials. Maginn predicted that if Romney wins the nomination, more Massachusetts Republicans will turn out in the general election, helping Republicans in state races.
“He’ll have coattails,’’ Maginn said. “People will start to say we need some balance, we need to send people from the Republican Party to the congressional delegation, to Washington.’’
Maginn said he believes Romney could even make Massachusetts competitive in the general election, though President Obama, a Democrat, won the state with 62 percent of the vote in 2008.
Even some who did not support Romney in 2008 have changed their minds in this election. Massachusetts does not have the strong base of evangelical or Tea Party voters who have supported Santorum. While McCain appealed to the state’s moderate Republicans in 2008, no candidate but Romney fills that role this year.
Peter Blute, a former congressman and deputy chairman of the state Republican Party, voted for McCain in 2008 because the two had worked together in Congress and were close friends. This year, Blute is supporting Romney, who he said has “broad appeal’’ and will be the strongest candidate against Obama.
As a former Massachusetts governor, “we know him, we know his wife, we know his family,’’ Blute said. “He’s been a guy who’s just a successful person in public and private life.’’
Richard Tisei, as a state senator in 2008, supported Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York. Now a congressional candidate, Tisei is backing Romney.
“In the current field, Romney is head and shoulders above all the other candidates,’’ Tisei said. “Right now, he’s the best, the strongest person that we could have on the economy and on job creation.’’
Fred Bayles, director of the Boston University College of Communication’s State House Program, said the interesting question will not be Romney’s margin of victory but whether he is able to inspire voters to turn out. So far, turnout has been down from 2008 in Arizona, Michigan, and other states.
“People are turned off by the process,’’ Bayles said. “They’re not energized like they were in 2008, and you have a lot of negative ads, which I think convince the voters that none of these guys are worth voting for.’’