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JAN. 19, 2006

Governor’s speech crafted with two audiences in mind

A month ago, Governor Mitt Romney said he had accomplished what he set out to do and announced he wouldn’t run for reelection. But last night, in a speech aimed for both national and local audiences, the potential 2008 Republican presidential candidate laid out a full agenda for his final year in office.

In his last State of the State address, Romney rehashed some of his old ideas and initiatives, repackaged a proposed income tax rollback to win support from the Democrat-controlled Legislature, and offered a few new proposals, including funding for an ambitious proposal to expand healthcare to the state's uninsured.

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Lawmakers are supportive of healthcare legislation, but there is little chance that the Democrats, under pressure from the teacher unions, will accept his plans for sweeping education changes, such as merit pay for teachers.

In December, Romney sought to justify his decision not to seek a second term, a career move that cleared the path for the presidential campaign that most political observers expect him to launch. ''I've got the job done I set out to do," he said then. Romney said that the ''vision that I ran for and that I promised to the people of Massachusetts I've delivered to the extent that I possibly can."

But last night, the governor who took office in 2003 was clearly striving to appear engaged and avoid lame duck status. The public may not be so forgiving.

''The public is not going to buy that," said Jeffrey Berry, professor of political science at Tufts University. ''He is seen now as occupying the governor's office, but is mentally somewhere else. The irony is that he is a much better presidential candidate than governor."

Romney's speech seemed designed to battle the perception that he is focused more on a presidential race than on being governor.

Last night was his first major public appearance since he put himself into that politically difficult position and the address was met with polite applause. A few seats in the crowded House chamber were empty.

A healthcare bill, now being negotiated by legislators behind closed doors, is his top priority and he again made that clear.

''The stage is set for something historic," Romney told the House chamber, referring to the health legislation.

He offered a new wrinkle when he said he would set aside $200 million to help finance the bill, hoping to take the issue of a tax hike to pay for it, a major stumbling block, off the table.

''He needs this," said Berry, referring to the health legislation. ''Despite his claims in his speech last month that he accomplished all his goals, he needs that and some other things from the Legislature."

However, for Romney, who has spent the last year putting the building blocks in place for a presidential campaign, trying to persuade the Massachusetts public, politicians, and media that he is an engaged governor is going to be a hard sell.

On Friday, he is headed to Omaha to give a speech to a Republican audience. It will be an event that is beamed into a good part of the Iowa media market, a state that he frequently visits and that is high on the list of important stops for presidential candidates.

Next month, the governor may well be out of state more than he is at the State House. His calendar is filled with political events, including two trips to South Carolina and one to Michigan. At the end of the month, the governor will be wrapped up with his duties at the National Governors Association annual meeting in Washington, followed by a meeting of the Republican Governors Association.

He chairs the Republican governors group and is likely to continue traveling around the country to help elect GOP governors and raise money.

He also may travel to the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, in mid-February. Not all these out-of-state jaunts are written in stone, and they could be canceled.

But the tentative out-of-state schedule reflects the difficult balancing act facing Romney: to battle to stay relevant as governor while needing to raise his national profile.

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