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Mitt Romney Could Be Teddy's Bugbear


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MITT ROMNEY COULD BE TEDDY'S BUGBEAR

He's rich. He's handsome. He's the scion of a famous family. And he's gunning for office in Massachusetts. But--surprise--he may be running against a Kennedy.

Meet Mitt Romney, son of George Romney, former American Motors Corp. chairman and Michigan governor, who tried for the GOP Presidential nomination in 1968. On Feb. 2, the younger Romney plans the official launch of his campaign for the U.S. Senate. If he wins the Republican nomination--and most pundits say he has a good shot--he will face Senator Edward M. Kennedy in November. Even Romney admits it will be "an uphill battle." But Massachusetts has turned more conservative lately, and the Republicans think Kennedy could be vulnerable after 32 years in office.

Willard Mitt Romney, 46, could hardly offer a greater contrast to the rumbustious Kennedy. A devout Mormon who doesn't drink and is married to his high school sweetheart, Romney has spent the past decade as chief executive of Bain Capital, a Boston venture-capital firm affiliated with consultancy Bain & Co. But Romney says he has long harbored political ambitions. "I've always remembered the advice that Dwight Eisenhower gave my father," he says. "Don't get involved in politics until your kids are raised and you've established a firm base of finances."

STEADY HAND. Romney's base is firm indeed. He has socked away a small fortune heading Bain Capital by backing such successes as office-supply giant Staples Inc. Romney also won a reputation as a steady hand in a crisis. Indeed, when Bain & Co. found itself on the verge of bankruptcy in late 1990, it turned to Romney as its new CEO.

The situation, recalls one financier involved, was "nearly hopeless." Romney persuaded 15 top consultants to stay for 18 months, keeping the company intact while he helped forge a restructuring deal between prickly Bain founders and angry bankers. Romney ended his role last year, and today Bain is on the upswing. "Mitt saved our company," says Thomas J. Tierney, Bain's worldwide managing director.

Friends and colleagues say Romney is the opposite of the stereotypical politician. "When he gives you his word, you believe it," says John C. Rutherford, a former Bain & Co. director. "Ethics are a very important part of his definition of what a man is supposed to be." And stories about Romney's generosity abound. One neighbor, Douglas D. Anderson, recalls that when his house caught fire five years ago, Romney arrived before the fire trucks. He organized neighbors to rescue prized belongings, then insisted the Anderson family stay at his house for weeks.

LONG ODDS. Romney intends to focus his campaign on two issues: jobs and the economy. "We need people in the Senate who know how to create jobs, how to build and fund small businesses," he says. Describing himself as "fiscally conservative and socially innovative," he lambastes Kennedy as the standard-bearer for the social programs "that have been a disaster for this country." Romney says he wants welfare programs that "don't subsidize children having children" and educational reform that stresses "discipline and basic American values like respect for others and abhorrence of violence."

The political neophyte faces long odds. First, Romney must win the September primary, where he is the current front-runner but faces tough opposition. If he wins, he'll meet Kennedy in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1. Kennedy obliterated his 1988 opponent, Joseph D. Malone, 63% to 33%. "Beating Ted Kennedy is about as likely as Sharon Stone calling me for a date," says Boston Democratic consultant Michael A. Goldman.

But the race promises to be much closer than in 1988. With his connections and deep personal pockets, Romney hopes to raise about $7 million, seven times what Malone spent in 1988. Moreover, Republican Governor William F. Weld, who has cut taxes and spending, will be heading the state ticket in November. And most voters are focused on the state's still-struggling economy, not on the social-welfare issues Kennedy has championed.

Romney has been informally stumping for weeks, and his formal kickoff will be a speech on Groundhog Day. He jokes: "If I see my shadow, we get six more years of Ted Kennedy." If not, Kennedy may finally have a real political fight on his hands.Mark Maremont in Boston


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