With most potential presidential candidates still making final decisions about whether to pursue a White House bid, one prospect, Governor Romney of Massachusetts, is already slugging away at his rivals for the Republican nomination.
In an interview published yesterday, Mr. Romney alleged that two other prominent Republicans likely to enter the race, Mayor Giuliani and Senator McCain of Arizona, are not true conservatives.
"I'm a conservative Republican. There's no question about that," Mr. Romney told the Washington Examiner. "I'm at a different place than the other two."
Mr. Romney said his positions were more conservative than those of the other men on immigration, campaign finance restrictions, same-sex marriage, and interrogation of detainees, but the governor took particular aim at Mr. McCain for claiming to oppose legalized gay marriage while also opposing a federal constitutional amendment to outlaw the practice.
"In my opinion, it's disingenuous," Mr. Romney said. "Look, if somebody says they're in favor of gay marriage, I respect that view. If someone says, like I do, that I oppose same-sex marriage, I respect that view. But those who try and pretend to have it both ways, I find it to be disingenuous."
In response to a query from The New York Sun, an aide to Mr. McCain, John Weaver, called Mr. Romney's statements "laughable" and unworthy of a substantive response.
Mr. Romney, who chose not to run for re-election and will leave office in January 2007 after serving a single term, said he and Mr. McCain were the only Republicans who had invested the time and effort needed to build a national support network and fund-raising operation needed for a presidential run.
However, Mr. Romney said Mayor Giuliani has the stature to cobble together such an effort if he chooses to. "His celebrity status would presumably allow him to do that on a fast track," the governor said.
As if on cue, Mr. Giuliani reportedly filed papers yesterday officially registering his new exploratory committee with the Federal Election Commission. A spokeswoman for Mr. Giuliani, Sunny Mindel, did not respond to requests for comment on Mr. Romney's statements.
Political analysts said they were somewhat surprised that Mr. Romney moved so quickly to criticize his opponents, breaching what President Reagan called the "Eleventh Commandment," not to speak ill of another Republican.
"It sounds like January 2008, rather than November 2006," said a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, Larry Sabato. "We're in the middle of the presidential contest, as shocking as that news will be for most Americans."
Mr. Sabato said Mr. Romney is scrambling for position as the press and hardcore Republican political activists tune in to the presidential race. "He understands he is barely in third place. He also understands that the person who is positioned as the conservative alternative to McCain and Giuliani stands a decent chance of being the nominee," the professor said.
Mr. Romney is currently locked in a legal battle to force Massachusetts legislators to allow voters in that state to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage there. However, the Massachusetts governor's ability to win over religious conservatives remains in some doubt, chiefly due to his Mormon faith.
A survey released Monday by Rasmussen Reports found that 53% of evangelical Christians said they would not consider voting for a Mormon candidate. Among American adults generally, 43% said they would not vote for a Mormon for president.
"This is an additional hurdle for him," the pollster, Scott Rasmussen, said. "It raises questions about whether Romney can get some social conservatives. He may have to work a little harder for it than some people expected."
While Messrs. McCain and Giuliani could split moderate voters in their party, Mr. Romney will also face rivals for the conservative vote. Senator Brownback of Kansas said yesterday that he will decide next month whether to run for president. "I think there's room for a full-scale, Ronald Reagan conservative in the field," Mr. Brownback told the Associated Press.
Rep. Duncan Hunter of California has already announced that he is exploring a bid from the party's right wing. Other conservatives, such as Majority Leader Frist and a former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, are also considering presidential campaigns.
While the surveys show challenges for Mr. Romney, he can take some solace in the fact that the putative Democratic front-runner for 2008, Senator Clinton, also has some high hurdles to mount if she decides to seek the presidency. In a CNN poll taken in June, 47% of Americans said they would definitely not vote for Mrs. Clinton.
However, a survey released by the network yesterday shows Mrs. Clinton is widely accepted by Democrats, 33% of whom said they favor her over other possibilities. The next most popular prospects were Senator Obama of Illinois, who was favored by 15% of Democrats, Vice President Gore, who drew 14% support, and a former senator from North Carolina, John Edwards, who also scored 14%.
Mrs. Clinton drew the least intra-party opposition among possible Democratic hopefuls, with 27% of Democrats saying they did not want her as the party's nominee. The 2004 nominee, Senator Kerry of Massachusetts was the most widely rejected, with 51% opposed to him winning the nomination again.