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As '08 race shapes up, is Romney for real?

Mitt Romney is making the rounds as he prepares for a possible bid for the '08 Republican presidential nomination.Jim Cole / AP file
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WASHINGTON - There’s no doubt he’s a real Republican; the question to be decided over the next several months: does Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have a real chance as a Republican presidential contender?

As governor of America’s thirteenth largest state, Romney has spent the last three years focused on such things as “Nicole’s Law,” a measure requiring carbon monoxide detectors in his state’s residential buildings (named after a girl who died of carbon monoxide poisoning); “Melanie’s Bill,” a measure to punish repeat drunk drivers, (in memory of a girl killed by such a driver); and “Taylor’s Law,” a statute allowing patients and their families to attend disciplinary hearings against doctors accused of errors (named after a 13-month-old girl who died after her emergency surgery was delayed).

Is the governor ready to shift focus to al Qaida terrorists, Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions, and the geopolitics of energy?

Romney was back in Washington Wednesday at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington to offer another in a series of speeches sketching out a philosophy that has already proven to have a test-market appeal to GOP primary voters in 2008.

At a straw poll conducted by the Campaign Hotline at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis a few weeks ago, Romney finished with a respectable 14 percent, coming in second to native son Sen. Bill Frist.

In his AEI speech, Romney argued that the way to higher educational performance is through charter schools, greater parental involvement, higher salaries for superior teachers and teachers’ unions which have been diminished in power.

With a Power Point presentation he used data from his state to show that spending more money per pupil in public schools or mandating lower student-to-teacher ratios does not correlate with better standardized test scores.

He cited Cambridge, Mass. “Despite the fact that it spends more than any other district in Massachusetts, its kids score in the bottom ten percent on our exam. So there’s not any relationship that’s apparent between how much you’re spending and how well the kids are doing,” he said. “Now clearly… you have to spend to have education. This wouldn’t suggest that you go down to zero.”

But he added an extra billion dollars spent on public school teachers’ salaries wouldn’t result in better test scores.

He said to get the changes he wants in Massachusetts is almost impossible given the fact that only 15 percent of the seats in each house of the legislature are held by Republicans.

But he seemed to suggest a strategy for driving a wedge between traditionally Democratic-voting black parents and the teachers’ unions, one of the Democratic Party’s biggest financial backers.

“The real truth is that the Democratic Party has been so tied to the teacher’s unions that they have a hard time making the kinds of changes we have proposed,” he said, noting that his state’s legislature had called for a moratorium on any new charter schools.

But he said black and Latino parents backed him on charter schools.

“The Democratic Party has counted on that (black and Latino) vote for a long time,” he noted. “They’re going to have to begin to listen to that vote and recognize that that vote and the union vote may be separate when it comes to education.”

He added, “this is not partisan,” since in his view workable innovations in education need not be either Democratic or Republican.

In a brief chat with reporters after his speech, Romney said, “Contrary to what I thought in 1994 when I ran against Sen. Kennedy in 1994, I believe the Department of Education today can bring focus to the priority of education and the fact that our schools nationally are falling behind.”

He praised President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates yearly standardized testing.

Apart from education, Romney in his speeches across the country paints a picture of the threats the next president must face: the decline of traditional marriage, the challenge to American workers from skilled rivals in India and China, and what he sees as “an upside-down” immigration policy that allows too many unskilled workers into the United States while forcing foreigners who get doctorates in science at U.S. universities to leave.

Romney is the only presidential hopeful to use the word “caliphate” in his speeches, warning that Islamic radicals seek to establish a worldwide dominance in which there’d be no room for tolerance or freedom of thought.

It would be a gloomy picture were it not for the Reaganesque uplift at the end of his speech. And Romney evokes Reagan in the uniquely soothing quality of his voice.

His voice conveys a sense that the situation – the looming caliphate, the influx of non-English speakers, the relative decline in the number of Americans getting science degrees is quite serious, jeopardizing our future, yet not hopeless.

If he decides to declare his candidacy, Romney will appeal to the social conservatives as the man who battles the gay-marriage forces head on. He lost.

Romney showed up at last December’s meeting of the Federalist Society, the right-leaning group that is the nursery and vetting agency for conservative judicial nominees, to denounce his state’s highest court for discovering a right to marriage for same-sex couples in the 1780 Massachusetts constitution.

“It’s a mistake for a decision of this magnitude to be made by a judicial body as opposed to a legislative body,” Romney said. “The court is basically saying what the majority of the citizens of this state feel on this issue is not relevant here.”

At the Memphis event, the marriage issue was his biggest applause winner. “Every child in America has the right to a mother and a father!” he declared.

In Memphis Romney scored well with the GOP audience by insisting that immigrants learn English: “I say if you’re going to be successful in America, you have to speak the language of America.”

Asked for his views on the immigration bill the Senate is now debating, Romney said he did not know the details, but said of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, “Let’s have them registered, know who they are, those who’ve been arrested or convicted of crimes shouldn’t be here. Those who are here paying taxes, and not taking government benefits, should begin a process toward an application for citizenship as they would from their home country.”

He added, “I don’t believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country. I do believe in insisting that these individuals learn English, pay taxes, and don’t take government benefits.”

Romney wants to smooth the way for more highly-skilled immigrants. “If you graduated at the top of your class at the India Institute of Technology, welcome to the fast track to become a citizen of the US of A. We need your brain power.”