The GOP hounds are baying for Mitt Romney.

And even though the barking is coming from 2,300 miles away in Boston, Romney hears them.

Concerned Republicans are calling, asking the president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee to sprint from the Winter Olympics back to his longtime home to run for governor this year.

The pleas are found publicly in political columns, in letters to the editor and radio talk shows. Privately, Romney is also getting telephone calls, he says.

The prospects of GOP Gov. Jane Swift, who as lieutenant governor inherited the job when former Gov. Paul Cellucci resigned to be part of the Bush administration, winning a new term are not good.

While officially backed by the Massachusetts Republican Party, in the polls she trails every Democratic candidate running against her in the basically Democratic state. And Swift recently got into a messy political fight over toll-road fees that alienated her conservative base.

Romney, also matched in some of the polls, beats Swift in a GOP primary hands down and does better against the Democratic wannabees.

And as the 2002 Winter Games are played up as a success — and Romney portrayed as their savior — the clamor is only rising in Bean Town.

"Please, Mitt Romney, get on the next plane out of town, come back to Massachusetts and run for governor," the Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory writes.

Romney, however, stays coy.

Just last week Romney told CNN when asked about a challenge to Swift: "I'm pretty careful not to absolutely rule out anything, but I do think it would take an unusual circumstance for me to run against an incumbent from my own party. I'm very careful to make sure that even when doors seem pretty closed (to running), there's always a little opening."

He told the Deseret News he has turned down requests to allow political polling on his behalf and has yet to set up an exploratory committee to look at the race. But Romney knows he doesn't have much time if he's going to choose Massachusetts over Utah.

"What's challenging is, Massachusetts has a shorter fuse than the other option, so I've got to look at that sooner rather than later," he said. "I will evaluate the political landscape based on whether I can win and whether I can really make a contribution."

Utah GOP chairman Joe Cannon knows a little about Utah and national politics. "Right now, Mitt is golden, just golden," said Cannon, a U.S. Senate candidate in 1992 and older brother of Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah.

Romney "has done a masterful job of playing down expectations in Olympic success and delivering way over" those expectations, chairman Cannon says. Romney has become a darling of the media, not just here and in Massachusetts — where people still remember his spirited challenge to Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in 1994 — but across the United States.

But all is not perfect for a Romney for Governor campaign this spring. There's the question of looking like a political opportunist — a black mark on Romney's squeaky clean reputation.

"Mitt Romney has said in the past that he supports Jane Swift for governor. She takes him at his word," Swift spokesman Jim Borghesani told the Boston Herald two weeks ago.

There are also the practical political problems:

  • Money. While a wealthy man (Romney is a multimillionaire who has already announced he won't return to Bain Capital, the venture firm he helped found), Romney wouldn't like spending his own cash on a governor's race. He's said he wouldn't take a salary unless SLOC makes money, and that is yet to be seen. Romney has basically worked without pay for several years.

  • Timing. The Paralympics for disabled athletes runs March 7-16, and Romney is likely duty-bound to stay with SLOC through those events. Romney could still become a Massachusetts candidate by winning at least 15 percent of the delegate vote in the April 6 state GOP convention. He'd have only a couple of weeks to campaign with the delegates. But various politicos in Massachusetts say he could cruise to that total in the convention and make it to the GOP primary, which isn't held until September, giving him months to campaign in-state.

  • No political organization. Romney says he has no organized network in Massachusetts, no informal campaign committee quietly laying the ground work. But there would no doubt be considerable excitement for such a quick run for office, and Romney said that he has "a number of friends back there who are very loyal" and who continue to pressure him to return, promising money and aid should he decide to make the bid. Even in Utah, he's being stopped regularly by Massachusetts residents here for the Games who urge him to get into the race.

  • Political history. Republicans are by far the minority party in Massachusetts — similar to Democrats in Utah. And like Utah Democrats, Massachusetts Republicans historically have avoided messy party primaries, which just lead to fractured loyalties and failed general elections. Swift is not getting out of the race for Romney or anyone else, even though she trails badly in the polls against Democratic contenders. A GOP gubernatorial primary would seem likely. And Romney went through a bitter intra-party primary in 1994 on his way to challenge Kennedy. "There's usually some rough and tumble to get into a position where you can run," Romney said. In Massachusetts, he learned the hard way that politics can be a blood sport. During his race, Romney said, "every day was just whack, whack, whack."

  • Religion. Romney's 1994 GOP opponent and Kennedy himself both said they would not campaign on Romney being a Mormon, a minority religion in heavily Catholic Massachusetts. But his GOP challenger called him "Mr. Mormon" in debates. And while Kennedy ultimately stopped the religion debate in the general campaign, he didn't act until his aides had played the Mormon card early in the race.

Romney said he's not thinking much about what voter reaction to his religion would be in Massachusetts as he makes his decision. "I don't think it figures in prominently," he said. "I'm already known for who I am in Massachusetts."

If Romney doesn't return to Massachusetts for the 2002 governor's race, all types of political opportunities lie down the road.

The Times of London has already quoted Bush administration officials as saying the president likes Romney and "would love to have him" in the administration in some post. There's speculation Romney could even be a vice presidential pick should Vice President Dick Cheney not want on the ticket in 2004 for health reasons.

Romney said his own political future did not come up during Bush's recent trip to Salt Lake City for the opening ceremonies of the Games. Cheney is expected to be here for Sunday's closing ceremonies.

A U.S. Senate run from Utah is possible, although Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, both R-Utah, don't seem likely to retire at the end of their terms in 2006 and 2004, respectively. Unseating either of them is unlikely.

Leavitt's term is up in 2004. But a number of home-grown Republicans are awaiting and Romney would be considered a moderate Republican by Utah standards. He clearly is aware of his political future here, however, vehemently denying press reports last year that he was pro-choice on abortion during his 1994 U.S. Senate campaign.

Romney makes it clear he has other options, including public service. He suggested he could be named the head of the Points of Light foundation started by former President George Bush. Right now, he's vice chairman of the organization.

He has declined to say when he'll announce his intentions or even where he'll call home, Deer Valley or Belmont, Mass. "I can keep working here for three years," Romney said. "Or I can be gone the day after the Games are over."


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com; lisa@desnews.com