Jane Swift Takes One For the Team

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Jane Swift looked like she had been through hell. Her eyes were swimming with tears that she refused to let fall. Voice quavering, the acting governor of Massachusetts announced Tuesday that she would not run for the governor's seat this fall. Swift looked as shocked as the members of the state's political establishment, who were expecting her to put up a fight. Only the day before, she was defiantly vowing to contest a late primary challenge from Mitt Romney, chairman of the recent Winter Olympics. But after a night discussing what that fight would be like with her closest advisers and her husband, she was dropping out of the race. "I've never walked away from a fight in my life," Swift said. "That's probably the toughest part of this."

It's tough, but it's the smart move. Some might question Swift's political toughness — the incumbent, she dropped out of a race before her opponent even formally announced his candidacy. But Swift is no pushover. And she knows this was a fight she could not win. By dropping out now, she has done a favor for the state Republican Party. Party leaders will owe her one when she decides to make her political comeback.

It's testament to Swift's brand of Republicanism that she was there in the first place — calling Massachusetts liberal, as they say, is like calling Alaska chilly. Still, Republicans of Swift's stripe have managed to hold on to the governor's office for 12 years now. When Governor Paul Cellucci resigned to become ambassador to Canada last April, Lt. Governor Swift stepped into his job, and at first it looked like she'd easily win election this November. She's young, bright and inherited a state in good fiscal condition. Swift's a trailblazer, too — the first female governor in Massachusetts, she was pregnant with twins when she took the job. After she gave birth, the sight of the ultimate working mom holding those babies gave her high approval ratings. But then Swift started making mistakes, and those cute babies were no longer political assets.

Swift's first wounds were self-inflicted. An ethics panel fined her for using state aides as babysitters. Then she hitched a ride on a state helicopter so she could get home to see her sick daughter without waiting in Thanksgiving traffic. Later she tried to axe two State Turnpike Authority board members for not voting her way. As each new scandal broke, Swift showed her toughness. She came off as unapologetic and defiant, apologizing only belatedly for each infraction.

Meanwhile, a second round of blows was heading her way, and these were not of her own making: the two planes that slammed into the World Trade Center on September 11th originated at Boston's Logan airport. Swift had to fight, quickly, to improve security at Logan. Then, just as air safety issues seemed under control, the slowing economy hit the state's cash flow. Now the state faces a $2 billion deficit — and Swift has had to tussle with the Democrat-dominated legislature every day over spending and whether to raise taxes.

Suddenly, Swift's poll numbers were in the dump. Five Democrats were all fighting for the chance to face her in November, and all five did fairly well in polling of head-to-head match-ups. Republican fundraisers and party loyalists weren't exactly thrilled by the idea of sticking by the governor. So they started looking for someone — anyone — to challenge her. Romney, a political novice, is the son of the former governor of Michigan, and was a highly successful venture capitalist who in 1994 decided to use his checkbook to make a run at Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. The newcomer got squashed, but not as badly as most of Ted's GOP challengers. And he scored big points by rescuing the scandal-torn Salt Lake Olympic Committee. When the Games were a big hit, drool started running down the chins of Massachusetts Republicans.

When Swift and her campaign team started searching for Romney's weaknesses, a few popped up immediately: He's pro-life and has a bad history with labor. But voters either don't realize that or they don't care. Last Sunday a poll of Massachusetts voters put Romney 60 points ahead of Swift, hammering home an unwelcome reality: in order to mount a successful defense of her seat, Swift would have to raise enough money to compete with a guy who could write a $10 million check to his own campaign. Swift's staff realized she couldn't win — and more importantly, that the party no longer wanted her in the race.

Instead of allowing her political career to go down with her governorship, Swift stepped aside and saved it. It's not as if she's reached the end of the line: on the contrary; at 37, she's the youngest governor in the nation. She was elected to the state senate at 26. She can devote her remaining months in office to repairing her reputation, then spend some time with her family. And in a few more years, her party will finally realize that in a state with so many more moderates and liberals than conservatives, the GOP needs a woman like Jane Swift.