As state Senate leaders prepare for a push to legalize slot-machine gambling in Massachusetts this fall, influential conservatives in key presidential primary states are vowing to press Governor Mitt Romney to veto any such legislation, or to risk losing their support in the 2008 contest for the White House.
A prominent conservative activist and a crusader against gambling in Iowa is threatening to try to hamper ticket sales for a Republican ''Steak Fry" fund-raiser in Dallas County, Iowa, if the governor does not come out strongly against expanded gambling in his home state. Romney has been invited to the steak fry to be the keynote speaker.
The activist, Stacey Cargill, mobilized thousands of voters last fall to soundly defeat a proposal to bring a casino to Dallas County.
Cargill said she would seek to unleash the same forces on Romney, in concert with several other influential groups in the state, such as the Iowa Christian Coalition and the Iowa Family Policy Center.
''If Mitt Romney is going to engage in incorporating casino slots as a form of economic development for the state of Massachusetts, we will spread the word and ask the state of Iowa to vote for another candidate in the caucuses," Cargill said in a telephone interview last week. ''It's that big of an issue."
Romney has signaled support for limited slot machines in Massachusetts, but now, as he considers a run for the presidential nomination, activists opposed to gambling in New Hampshire and Florida said they are keeping a close eye on his position on slot machines.
The New Hampshire Republican platform explicitly denounces expanded gambling.
''I wouldn't hestitate in calling him," said Donna Sytek, the former Republican speaker of the New Hampshire House and a major GOP activist in the state.
Sytek was invited by Romney to his Lake Winnipesaukee home on Aug. 20, as part of the effort to build support in New Hampshire for a potential presidential run.
According to Senate leaders, the new measure would be written to permit roughly 3,500 ''video lottery terminals," which are essentially slot machines, at the state's two horse-racing tracks, its two greyhound-racing tracks, and an unspecified site in Western Massachusetts.
State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill would oversee the new gaming industry, the lawmakers said, to ensure that the slots would not eat into the $1 billion the state Lottery pumps into schools and municipal governments.
In 2003, Romney said he would support a measure to license slot machine parlors in the Bay State if licenses for such facilities were auctioned off to the highest bidders, and if the licenses had limited terms. This put him at odds with Democrats who were seeking to hand such licenses exclusively to the state's greyhound and horse tracks. Romney signaled his backing as legislators were seeking ways to drum up revenue to bridge a $3 billion budget gap. The gaming issue died in the Legislature before it reached Romney's desk.
But last week, Julie Teer, a Romney spokeswoman, said that the Senate's slot machine proposal is not on his agenda. ''Expanded gaming is not something Governor Romney has proposed or is even considering," Teer said.