Brown’s White House buzz could spell trouble for Mitt Romney

Presidential buzz around Sen. Scott Brown could put the new GOP star on a collision course with Mitt Romney, a man who helped launch Brown’s Washington political career.

From the moment Brown won the special election in Massachusetts last month, party strategists and activists have salivated over his national prospects.

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Brown, a Northeastern Republican like Romney, won what many deemed a symbolic national victory for the party by snagging a seat held for decades by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) and essentially stopping the Democratic healthcare plan in its tracks. His victory in the liberal state gave him instant credibility, similar to Democrats who have been able to carry the South, such as President Bill Clinton.

Conservative political observers say the excitement around Brown could dim the lights on the other ambitious Massachusetts Republican. Romney, the state’s former governor and a 2008 presidential contender, is widely considered a GOP front-runner in 2012.

“It would be a huge problem,” said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who expressed skepticism that Brown would run for president in 2012.

“You’re talking about a similar base of support between Brown and Romney,” Darling said. “If Brown were to run and capitalize [on] new rock-star status in the conservative movement, it would clearly be a problem for Romney.”

If there was tension brewing between the two men, it was hard to see Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington.

Brown called Romney “one of the Republican Party’s bright lights” and a “very dear friend” while giving him a warm introduction.

Romney has also demonstrated an ability to win in the Democratic Northeast. But Romney struggled to win over skeptical conservatives in the 2008 presidential primary because of his past support for abortion rights and gun control.

Brown, by comparison, is a hero to many conservative voters and activists who have made him a national figure — a factor that could change the longer he stays in the Senate.

Former advisers to Romney’s presidential campaign have talked down the likelihood and viability of a Brown bid for White House.

“Scott Brown’s going to be a great senator and run for reelection,” said one former Romney adviser.

A second Romney adviser said Brown would present “the wrong profile to compete against [President Barack] Obama.”

The source said it would be difficult for Republicans to argue that Obama should be replaced by a “celebrity phenom with no experience,” especially considering how strongly the GOP criticized Obama’s celebrity and lack of experience in 2008.

Brown’s staff has avoided speculation over his prospects but did not rule out a future run.

“As for national ambitions, Sen. Brown has been in Washington a short time and is focused only on serving the people of Massachusetts in his capacity as United States senator,” said spokesman Colin Reed.

A political adviser to Brown was not aware of any discussion about a run for higher office within the candidate’s inner circle. 

“I can see naturally how those conversations would begin to percolate around the country,” the adviser said. “Just internally, in Scott’s Brown’s head, he wants to run for reelection as U.S. senator.”

But the adviser noted his appeal on the national stage.

“A Republican from the South doesn’t stand out, but a Republican from New England does stand out. He’s an attractive all-around charismatic personality, and that helps anyone as a candidate. Anyone who wants [to run] for president has those qualities.”

Waiting comes with risk. The longer he stays in the Senate, the longer Brown's voting record grows. To win reelection in liberal Massachusetts, he is almost certain to vote with Democrats from time to time, and that could lessen his appeal among conservatives.

Timing is crucial for presidential aspirants, a point made not too long ago by the man who held Brown’s Senate seat for the past 46 years.

“Your time only comes once, and this is your time,” Kennedy told Obama in 2006, according to The Associated Press. Kennedy urged Obama  to run for president and not to wait, even though people said he was inexperienced.

The conservative media organization Newsmax commissioned a Zogby poll in late January showing Obama edging Brown by only two percentage points in a hypothetical match-up.

Brown will face his first tough decision next week when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) gives him his committee assignments.
 
Brown has expressed interest in serving on the Armed Services, Homeland Security and Appropriations committees.
 
Serving on the Appropriations panel, which funds domestic spending programs and sets aside billions of dollars' worth of earmarks, could help Brown win over constituents back home. But membership on the panel could also tarnish his reputation in the eyes of conservatives and Republican-base voters.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, warned against serving on the Appropriations panel.
 
“I don’t know why that was his choice,” Norquist said. “That would be not be my nomination or recommendation.”

Brown would face other significant obstacles if he decided to run in 2012.

He would only have one year of Senate experience by the time he would have to announce his candidacy in early 2011. His centrist record, including support for abortion rights, would pose a problem in GOP primaries.

He is facing Senate reelection in 2012, which means he would have to give up his congressional perch if he were to run for president.

And a White House run would likely pit him up against Romney, the political benefactor who stocked much of Brown’s political team. 

Brown’s senior political advisers, many of whom have ties to Romney, are expected to talk him out of a 2012 run.

“The team around him will uniformly recommend that running for president is the dumbest thing because they’re dead loyal to Mitt Romney,” said a GOP strategist who advised Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Three of Brown’s top political advisers, Eric Fehrnstrom, Peter Flaherty and Beth Myers, worked for Romney.

Brown recently hired Gail Gitcho, a press secretary for Romney’s 2008 campaign, as his communications director. He also hired Beth Lindstrom, his campaign manager, who previously served in Romney’s Massachusetts administration, to his Senate staff. 

Priscilla Ruzzo, Brown’s finance director, is another former Romney aide.

Brown acknowledged his political debt to the former governor when he introduced him at CPAC.

“He kept encouraging me to plow forward,” Brown said, noting that Romney was one of his first supporters, along with his wife, children and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
 
"In the beginning, I could have held my campaign rally in a phone booth," Brown told the audience. "I'm here today to introduce one of those guys who was in that phone booth with me."