The Contender

Larry McKibben has a lot on his plate, and in more ways than one. A state senator from Marshalltown, Iowa, McKibben has just cut a swath through the buffet line, loading up on scrambled eggs, bacon, home fries, and assorted pastries. And if that doesn't add up to enough empty calories, there's plenty of sugary sweet talk coming from the steady stream of politicians working the room.

First up are the locals, like Iowa Congressman Jim Nussle , who greets the crowd with a hearty, “Good morning, Iowa freedom fighters!” Next comes former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, just one in a long line of potential 2008 presidential hopefuls dropping by . McKibben knows how important his state's role is in primary season. “We don't make any quick decisions,” he says. “We examine résumés. We listen to them. We kinda pinch the bread.”

There's a buzz in the room as a fresh loaf arrives. He is, as Nussle explains in a glowing introduction, the man who saved the Salt Lake City Olympic Games from bankruptcy and scandal, “an effective leader in both business and public service throughout his life,” and — most impressively of all to the crowd, judging from the gasps and applause — an amazingly young-looking father of five and grandfather of seven.

Yes, the Mitt Romney 2008 campaign preview tour has arrived, and for the next 20 minutes, the GOP activists from Iowa sit spellbound as the governor who would be president works his magic. “It's such a wonderful, uplifting experience to be with so many Republicans. . . . We don't have a lot of you in Massachusetts,” Romney says to appreciative laughter. But rest assured, his is no alien presence. Romney reminds these Iowa delegates to the Republican National Convention that he made many trips to their state as a corporate fixer at Bain & Company, salvaging a valve manufacturer in Marshalltown by day, dining out at Rube's Steakhouse at night — a hip local reference that draws a knowing chuckle.

Having established his credentials as a virtual Iowan and relaxed the crowd with a joke about John Kerry, Romney proceeds to sketch out a political profile that, if all goes according to plan, will become familiar to voters across America over the next four years. Despite the state's image as a liberal Democratic stronghold, he explains, folks in Massachusetts “voted for a Republican because they care about their money and don't want to see their taxes going up.” He stresses the importance of preserving and creating jobs by improving education, promoting research, and helping small businesses. And he wraps up with a nod to the cultural fears of the social conservatives who dominate the GOP. “There's an attack from within, if you will, with regards to the values of America. Do we recognize the family as an essential building block for the development of our children? These kinds of issues are very much in question today.”

McKibben joins in the warm standing ovation that follows and is one of many — female delegates in particular — who jump up to pinch the handsome white bread for themselves as Romney works the room. “People are generally aware of his management skills, both from the standpoint of the Olympics and from what we hear out here about Massachusetts,” he says later, noting that it was the second time he's met Romney personally. “He is very, very credible and attractive.”

Not to mention available. Barring unforeseen events, such as a downturn in his wife Ann's so-far-successful battle with multiple sclerosis, any shred of doubt that Romney is in the pool of GOP 2008 hopefuls was erased by his flagrant campaigning during the convention in New York. Forget about this month's election: The governor's hat is effectively in the ring for the next round. So how will Mitt play in the heartland?

In addition to enjoying a high-profile speaking slot in prime time during the convention, Romney touted his midwestern roots in a well-received speech to delegates from Michigan (where his late father served two terms as governor) and cemented his ties to New Hampshire Republicans by plying them with beer and shrimp at a jam-packed party aboard the USS Intrepid. Some Utah delegates are already referring to him as “President Romney.” He was prominent in countless published lists of future candidates, including a money-can't-buy-this Newsweek puff piece that labeled Romney “the moderate” in the field and featured a Reagan-esque picture of him on horseback .

In an interview with Boston magazine, Romney even departed from his usual denial-of-interest script when asked if his convention-week schedule was meant to lay the groundwork for a national presence. “Yes, I think it's important for Republicans to establish national credentials and capabilities,” he said. “I care very deeply about trying to be helpful to other people and providing a better nation and a better state.”

For a guy who has been called the ultimate CEO, the next step is obvious. But the presumed end of the will-he-or-won't-he speculation marks the onset of another set of questions: Can the leader of one of the GOP's least-conservative state parties, a man whose views on abortion rights might have gotten him booed off the stage at Madison Square Garden had he been foolish enough to disclose them, survive the gauntlet of the Republican primaries? And will Romney's gubernatorial PowerPoint presentation of budget-balancing, government-reforming credentials carry the day with an electorate more focused on foreign affairs and national security?

“I don't see him playing well,” says state Democratic Party Chairman Phil Johnston. “The Republican Party has been hijacked by the right wing. When Romney moved from Utah to Massachusetts [to run for governor in 2002] he had to move to the left on social issues.”

Just as Romney delights in lampooning Kerry's policy positions as flip-flops, he can expect his right-wing adversaries to skewer him on abortion rights. During his 1994 run for the Senate against Ted Kennedy, Romney put a moderate spin on his position, explaining that while he personally opposed abortion, he became a supporter of keeping the procedure legal when a relative died after an illegal abortion. “Regardless of one's beliefs about choice, you would hope it would be safe and legal,” he said. But during his time in resolutely pro-life Utah, Romney wrote a letter to a Utah newspaper explaining that he would prefer not to be labeled “pro-choice.” Then, returning to Massachusetts, he was back on the pro-choice bandwagon, defending the right of states to fund Medicaid abortions and endorsing legalization of the abortion drug RU-486. (Romney also supports federal funding for stem-cell research, another no-no for social conservatives.)

This may seem like thin gruel, but as Kerry can attest, candidates have been
pilloried for less. “The bottom line for the Christian right is [abortion], and I don't think he's in the right place on that now,” says Johnston. At least one top New Hampshire Republican agrees: “The question that comes up is the choice issue,” this GOP operative says. “Will this party nominate someone from the Northeast who's pro-choice?”

It might if reassured by Romney's opposition to gay marriage. The first question from the Iowa delegation breakfast crowd was about Romney's resistance to “the gay marriage thing in your legislature.” Without mentioning that he has expressed limited support for civil unions for same-sex couples — a nonstarter in right-wing circles — Romney said, “We still want to preserve marriage as an institution for being the ideal, the model for raising our children and, therefore, that marriage will be preserved for a man and a woman.” “There you go!” shouted one woman amid the ensuing applause. “God bless you!” cried another .

It's the raw meat the right wants to hear, thoroughly sautéed in Romney's soothing style. “It's critical that we show respect, love, and tolerance for all people, regardless of their differences and choices in life,” said Romney, to nods from the churchgoing Iowans. “They're children of the same God.”

No one asked about abortion at the Iowa breakfast, but Romney surely would have been ready with more disarming charm. “The key is, you don't get in the conservatives' faces,” says veteran Republican activist Bill Whalen of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “You're not confrontational, you're not judgmental.” California Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim, another top GOP figure who's met Romney several times, adds, “He seems to have the ability to disagree with people without being disagreeable.”

And while there may be elements of the party's hard right who will never warm up to a conciliatory type like Romney, there are plenty of votes to be harvested among the ranks of GOP moderates, especially in what, for Romney, would be the most crucial early presidential-campaign test. “For New Hampshire, he's a good fit,” says Tom Rath, a Republican activist in that state.

A Romney-for-president campaign would be a gamble, for when autumn 2008 nears, the party will be looking for a reformist John McCain sound-alike (but not McCain himself), a budget-minded, Ross Perot-get-under-the-hood-and-fix-it type who — unlike Perot — is in full possession of his marbles. Despite Romney's efforts to boost his national-defense credentials by cochairing a committee on homeland security for the National Governors Association, his foreign-policy résumé can't match that of possible GOP candidates such as McCain or Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, one of the Senate's top foreign-affairs experts.

But if the war on terror continues to fuel budget deficits, profligate spending, and the risk of tax hikes to pay for it all, the Romney inner circle suspects Republicans may be yearning for a corporate turnaround artist. Hence the emphasis at the Iowa breakfast on his attempts to crack down on Beacon Hill overspending and waste, a spin that can at least be counted on to play well in New Hampshire. Notes Rath: “We see a lot of him on the news saying no to the Democrats.” Adds Whalen, an expert on California politics: “If you want to make a Republican's heart go pitter-pat, give them a governor from outside of the Beltway who's a pro-business fiscal conservative.”

Romney campaign scenarios may seem outrageously premature, and unexpected events could intervene. In addition to a change in his wife's health, these might include high-profile future failures by his administration, which, after all, is less than two years old. But Romney is, above all else, a world-class investment analyst. His turn on the catwalk during the Republican convention was the political equivalent of performing due diligence before writing the check. And if Romney came away feeling bullish about the race, so did some key stockholders of his takeover target. “An awful lot of people say, 'Where is the Republican Party going to go for leadership?'” McKibben points out. “'Is Romney a top-tier candidate?' I don't think there's any question about that.”