Monday, August 21, 2006

LOS ANGELES — California Republicans believe a handsome, blue-state Republican such as Mitt Romney would turn the presidential map upside down in 2008, appealing to the voters on both coasts who normally back Democrats in national elections.

Mr. Romney is eyeing a White House bid as he finishes his last few months in the Massachusetts governor’s mansion, and made his case to state party activists this weekend at the California Republican Convention. They loved him — cheering wildly for a stump speech that closely resembled a stand-up routine and later praising him as someone with the right kind of fiscal and conservative values.

“He’s got the charisma Kennedy had and the morals we wish Kennedy would have had,” said Republican Donee Chabot of Los Angeles, who works in real estate.

Mr. Romney, 59, is an attractive candidate for the Republican nomination because of his political savvy, state party officials said.

“He’s a national-level player with national-level experience, and he showed that once again tonight,” said Duf Sundheim, chairman of the California Republican Party.

Mr. Romney delivered the keynote address to the convention Saturday night, reminding the grass-roots activists he works with a legislature that is 87 percent Democratic, makinghim a “conservative Republican governor in the most liberal blue state in America.”

He also told them how he cut more than $3 billion in government waste without raising taxes or borrowing money and touched on a wide scholarship program approved under his watch. He also portrayed himself as an optimist with the right ideas to fix the nation’s problems during its most critical period.

“I’m a little concerned about the challenges we face,” Mr. Romney said. “But I want you to know as I go through this list of challenges, I’m going to end up telling you why I am the most optimistic person in this room.”

After the speech, the audience of nearly 700 erupted in chants of “Run, Mitt, Run” and the governor was surrounded by adoring fans hoping to snap a picture of the grinning, salt-and-pepper-haired politician. He worked the room for nearly an hour as chattering Republicans said things like “What a realist.”

Others said Mr. Romney understands the direction the nation is headed, and specifically liked his call for a line-item veto and for reining in federal entitlement programs. They also agreed with his theory on keeping the U.S. competitive with India and other Asian nations.

“He is a visionary. He sees the problems, and he knows how to work them out,” said Rosemary Licata of Ventura.

When asked if his remarks were the makings of his first presidential stump speech, Mr. Romney told The Washington Times: “No, no. We’re just having fun getting Republicans elected.”

The governor’s comedy shtick included jokes about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s muscles, gentle ribbing over the Cal Tech-Massachusetts Institute of Technology rivalry and a crack about his ambitions.

“Thank you. I accept the nomination,” he said when opening his speech, to roaring laughter. “Wrong convention, sorry.”

He also defended President Bush for fighting “extreme Islamists” without specifically mentioning his position on the Iraq war.

“Thank heavens we have a president who understands the nature of this risk,” he said, lauding Mr. Bush’s “bold and uncompromising mission of offense.”

Robert Lanfranco II, 26, a Lake County resident, said Mr. Romney has a wide appeal for coming from the same left-leaning state as liberal Democratic Sens. John Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis. He said Mr. Romney has been a bridge builder with his state’s Democrats, attracting independents.

Iowa native-turned-Californian Kate Wright praised the governor but cautioned that her adopted state is ultimately irrelevant: “If you can’t make it in Iowa, you can’t resonate in America.”

Another Republican privately worried Mr. Romney’s Mormon faith would be a deterrent. The activist said Mormonism will be a difficult thing for the nation to get behind, a tougher religion to sell than President Kennedy’s Catholicism.

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