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Associated Press/Photo by Steven Senne

The many Mitts

Campaign 2012 | Tax cutter or big spender? Friend or foe of small business? For or against universal health coverage? Massachusetts conservatives debate the legacy of former governor and lead GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney

Issue: "Focus on Mitt Romney," July 16, 2011

Ask Kris Mineau about his work as a social conservative in liberal Massachusetts, and the director of the Massachusetts Family Institute quips: "We're fighting back the Huns at the gate."

Ask Mineau about working with Mitt Romney during the Republican's tenure as Massachusetts' governor, and Mineau offers an unflinching assessment of the now-presidential-candidate: "He was a startling breath of fresh air."

If that's a surprising assessment to some social conservatives skeptical of Romney's standing on issues like abortion, the positive sentiment also flows from some notable fiscal conservatives in Massachusetts.

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In the tourist haven of Cape Cod, Republican state congressman Randy Hunt works as a certified public accountant at his four-man firm in Sandwich, Mass. The accountant's clients include small business owners grappling with the effects of another part of Romney's legacy: healthcare legislation that requires Massachusetts citizens to purchase insurance or pay fines. With insurance premiums rising in the state, Hunt says the law's effects hit hard for small business owners looking for reasonable rates: "We're basically out to lunch on this."

But Hunt also says he's endorsing Romney for the GOP nomination. Despite healthcare woes, Hunt liked Romney's fiscal policy and his dealings with small businesses in Massachusetts: He sees Romney as "the adult in the room."

With at least six other candidates vying to be the adult in the room when voters choose the GOP presidential nominee, Romney's hurdles are formidable. Despite a strong showing in initial polls, the candidate faces some of the same questions he battled during his 2008 bid for the nomination: Is he really a social conservative? Will voters-particularly evangelicals-vote for a Mormon? Does the multimillionaire relate well to average voters in a struggling economy?

And Romney faces a new foe this cycle: his own healthcare legislation. The Massachusetts plan that drew relatively limited attention during the last cycle is now a battleground for many conservatives worried about President Barack Obama's healthcare law and how it compares to Romney's policy. Some voters wonder: Does the candidate touting fiscal conservatism have a troublesome big-government streak?

Voters looking for sound-byte answers may be disappointed: Significant support from notable Massachusetts conservatives who worked with Romney while he was governor undercuts the notion that Romney is merely a fair weather conservative. Mineau-a conservative evangelical-says Romney was a consistent ally: "We sorely miss him."

Meanwhile, the often-overlooked support of some national conservatives for Romney's healthcare legislation during its passage undercuts the notion that the idea was a blatantly liberal scheme. Three months before Romney signed the bill, Edmund Haislmaier of the conservative Heritage Foundation called the governor's plan "one of the most promising strategies out there."

But Romney's critics have legitimate concerns, and the candidate faces a steep challenge to explain how what he calls conservative intentions sometimes in his career have gone significantly awry. For the candidate with sweeping ideas and big-business expertise, it was the details that sometimes undermined the outcome. Another challenge: convincing some Republicans that his intentions are as conservative as he promises.

Romney's stint as Massachusetts governor began with a blunt plea from a local conservative. Barbara Anderson of the Massachusetts-based Citizens for Limited Taxation told The Boston Globe she remembers leaving a phone message for Romney when he was trying to salvage the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics from financial ruin: "I know you're really busy now with the Olympics, but when you're finished, please come back and save Massachusetts."

By most accounts, Romney did help save the 2002 Olympics, using the same brand of corporate savvy that made him a multimillionaire while leading Bain Capital in Massachusetts. Could he apply that savvy in a state suffering fresh economic losses from the bursting of the dot-com bubble and a budget deficit projected to approach $3 billion?

Four years after Romney's single term in office ended, fiscal conservatives in Massachusetts don't say that Romney saved the state, but many do admire the Republican's fiscal accomplishments in a state with a Democratic-controlled legislature.

Jim Stergios, who directed Romney's office of environmental affairs, now leads the conservative Pioneer Institute in Boston. Stergios says the private research organization applauded Romney's narrowing the state's budget shortfall while preventing a broad-based tax increase.

Indeed, Romney proposed cutting the state income tax from 5.3 percent to 5 percent. The legislature blocked the plan, but the governor succeeded in pushing a bill to prevent the state from applying capital gains taxes retroactively. That gave taxpayers a $275 million rebate on capital gains taxes the state had collected in 2002.

The conservative Beacon Hill Institute gave Romney a B- for his first state budget. David Tuerck, the group's director, says the governor's policies helped bolster business in the state. Those policies included economic incentives to streamline regulations and ease burdens on local businesses. Small business advocates are generally positive: Jon Hurst of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts calls Romney "pro-employer," and Brian Gilmore of Associated Industries of Massachusetts says Romney was "overall, positive toward business."

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