WASHINGTON – Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — vaulted into the national spotlight during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City – formally launched a presidential exploration committee this afternoon, a first step in a marathon quest for the White House.
Romney who is the fifth Mormon to seek the presidency, leaves the governor’s office Thursday and will join a field of several well- known Republicans in seeking their party’s nomination.
“After talking to my family, I have decided to take this initial step of forming an exploratory committee in order to raise the resources and build the campaign organization required to pursue the highest office in our country,” Romney said in statement.
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“I look forward to continuing to talk with the American people to determine the best way we can meet a new generation of challenges.” Romney’s committee noted the filing does not indicate an announcement to run for the presidency, just to explore the opportunity.
The 59-year-old Michigan native and venture capitalist is casting himself as a social and fiscal conservative, staking out territory to the political right of the more prominent contenders in the race, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
McCain and Giuliani have already formed exploratory committees.
Romney, however, faces challenges in the race, should he choose to fully commit, chiefly his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a religion viewed as a cult by some evangelical voters.
“It has the potential to be a big deal,” says John Green, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Policy. “Because in Republican primaries, evangelical voters are a big factor.” Though many news articles on Romney have mentioned his religion, it has not been a major issue so far. That may change in a heated primary battle, Green says.
“Then the incentive for Gov. Romney’s opponents to raise this issue, especially under radar, will be difficult to resist,” he says.
Romney also must counteract concern about his “evolution” in political stands, including his staunch positions now against abortion and gay marriage. In 1994 statements, he said he was left of Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy on some social issues.
Romney plans a kick-off fund-raiser on Monday in Boston, the start of an arduous process to amass a fortune in donations in only a short period of time. Observers say candidates who want to prove they have a credible campaign need to show some $20 million to $30 million in their first financial disclosures due March 31.
Romney, who must step aside from his political action committee’s bank account, starts at zero financially with his exploration committee filing, though he may call in several promises for funds given before Wednesday.
Even though polls have showed him with about 5 percent or less of support nationwide, Romney is regarded as one of the top tier presidential candidates and one of the few frontrunners.
“It’s hard not to call him that,” says Chuck Todd, editor and chief of the Hotline, a daily briefing of political news. “He may not poll like a frontrunner or have the name recognition. [But] he’s signing up staff like a frontrunner. Nobody denies he has the political skill and the money.” Romney is personally wealthy, a result of founding the venture capital firm, Bain Capital, and he has the ability to call on a network of executives across the nation for financial backing.
Romney on Wednesday also launched his Web site, www.mittromney.com.
Romney is following in the footsteps of his dad. George Romney, who was governor of Michigan and president of the American Motors Company, was considered a front-runner of the 1968 presidential race until his fateful comment that he was “brainwashed” about the Vietnam War. George Romney’s Mormon faith wasn’t a large factor in his short- lived race.
Other Mormons who have sought the White House include: LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, in 1844; former Arizona Democratic Rep. Mo Udall in 1976; and Utah’s Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch in 1999.
The Michigan native already handpicked a core staff of Republican insiders and has traveled extensively to states with the first shot at picking the party’s nominee.
Iowa will be the first state to hold a nomination contest in January 2008, but also hosts a straw poll in August of this year that may narrow the field of contenders. The first Republican presidential debate is scheduled for May.