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Thompson Could Mess Up Romney's Game

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INTRO: Former Governor Mitt Romney has been thrown a curveball by his two chief rivals in the Republican presidential race. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Senator John McCain are backing out of this summer's Ames, Iowa straw poll. It's an event in which Romney has invested a lot of resources, and one he's expected to win. No Republican candidate has skipped the poll and won the Iowa caucuses. This week, Romney has been working to consolidate his position in another key state, New Hampshire. WBUR's Fred Thys reports.

FRED THYS: There's a story that Mitt Romney likes to tell. He says it underscores his confidence in the American people.

MITT ROMNEY: I think it was my oldest son was at a Boy Scout court of honor. ...

THYS: That's where boys get the Eagle Scout award.

ROMNEY: ... And I was at the front of the room. There was a long Formica table. I was at the end of the table, next to an American flag.

THYS: The speaker was a Boy Scout leader from Monument, Colorado.

ROMNEY: He got up to the microphone and said: "My Boy Scouts wanted to have a very special flag."

THYS: So they persuaded NASA to take their flag on the space shuttle.

ROMNEY: The boys were proud as could be, watched from their schools and homerooms as they watched the shuttle take off and watched it explode.

THYS: After the Challenger disaster, the scout master called NASA asking if any piece of their flag had been found among the wreckage strewn about over the ocean.

ROMNEY: And they said: "We have."

THYS: The scouts traveled from Colorado to receive a watertight container from NASA. The scout master opened it, and there was their flag, in perfect condition.

ROMNEY: And he said: "That's it over at the end of the table, next to Mr. Romney."

THYS: That's the one story that Romney has told at pretty much every campaign stop over the last year and a half. Yesterday, he told it in a place where it hit close to home: Concord High School, where Christa McAuliffe, one of the astronauts killed in the Challenger explosion, used to teach. This was the seventh time this year a presidential candidate addressed the students, but it was the first time for a Republican candidate, and the young audience was ready with questions relevant to their future, about how he would encourage service in the National Guard, if he would expand the Coast Guard, and why he opposes gay marriage. It's a question he gets often, but yesterday substitute teacher Cynthia Fish put him on the spot.

CYNTHIA FISH: I am a gay woman and I have children. And with all due respect, sir, I wish you could explain to me why if we are sending our troops over to fight for liberty and justice for all throughout this country, why not for me? Why not for my family?

ROMNEY: When did you begin your family?

FISH: Three years ago, actually.

ROMNEY: Wonderful. I'm delighted. And you have a good family? And you're happy with your family? There are ways that we raise kids, and that's fine: single moms, grandparents raising kids, gay couples raising kids. That's the American way to have people have their freedom of choice. But I believe that as a society, we want to encourage a man and a woman to get married as the ideal setting.

THYS: Romney has charted his course to the nomination by presenting himself as the conservative candidate with the best chance of winning. That strategy could run into trouble with the entry of another candidate in the race, an actor and a former senator from Tennessee.

ANDY SMITH: The potential of Fred Thompson entering the race is going to hurt Romney a bit.

THYS: Andy Smith is the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

SMITH: Romney has worked very, very hard to mend fences with evangelicals, to bolster some of his social conservative credentials, and Thompson, we really don't know where he is on a lot of these issues, but he is perceived right now as being a more solid conservative than Romney is. I think that'll hurt him nationwide, but I don't think it'll hurt him that much in New Hampshire, simply because the Republican electorate in New Hampshire is simply not that conservative, certainly not on social issues.

THYS: Romney did try to burnish his conservative credentials Wednesday. At a press conference in Bedford he drew distinctions between himself and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani on gay rights and abortion.

ROMNEY: His view was, no, we need to elect somebody that's pro-choice, and I think it's instead to have a very strong posture, which includes a pro-life feature, and a pro-traditional marriage, anti-civil-union feature, and I think those are things that build the coalition that allows us to win in November.

THYS: It's not an easy sell for Romney, because his own positions on abortion and gays in the military have changed. You would expect the Romney campaign to be dismissive of Fred Thompson's chances, and they are. Romney has demonstrated in two years of raising money and organizing that he has the discipline to achieve his goal. Romney's team is also eager to show that it's very late in the game to jump in. Tom Rath, the Republican National Committeeman from New Hampshire until he jumped to lead Romney's campaign in the state, predicts that Thompson will find that this is a much more mature race than he thinks.

TOM RATH: I think he's going to have a lot of catching up to do, not just in terms of structure, but in terms of being a complete issue-developed candidate. Some of the folks around him don't understand how fast this is moving.

THYS: But there's another factor at play, and that's the drubbing that New Hampshire Republicans took last year. Dante Scala is a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

DANTE SCALA: I think there's room in the race in New Hampshire and in the country for Fred Thompson because I don't think that anyone has sealed the deal by any means in New Hampshire as well as in the country. New Hampshire Republicans especially are nervous. I think they're distraught quietly about what happened to them in 2006.

THYS: Democrats took the two Congressional seats from Republicans, and swept the State House. Scala predicts that New Hampshire Republicans, worried that their state might become a blue state, are looking for someone to lead them to victory. He says that because Romney has such a good organization, if Thompson has to play catch-up with anyone, it's with him.

For WBUR, I'm Fred Thys.

This program aired on June 7, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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