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Bay State of mind (continued)

For Romney to succeed, though, he’s got to hope that symbolism matters more than substance. That he still spends so much time talking about his success in running the Salt Lake City Olympics shows he may have a problem in touting his gubernatorial record. Thanks to overwhelming Democratic majorities in both branches of the legislature, Romney will likely hit the presidential-campaign trail as the Republican governor who failed to roll back taxes, failed to overturn same-sex marriage, failed to bring back the death penalty, and failed to limit stem-cell research. He may not even risk a 2006 gubernatorial re-election campaign, a decision that would free him up for full-time campaigning, but that would leave him with a remarkably thin political résumé. He did manage to balance the budget without raising taxes, but how often can he say that?

"It’s sort of like Bill Frist and the nuclear option. A lot of religious conservatives are saying it’s not enough to try and fail. You’ve got to get it done," says Michael Crowley, a senior editor at the New Republic. Crowley’s TNR colleague Ryan Lizza adds that, in some circles, the Romney buzz of a few months ago appears momentarily to have moved on. "The conservative politburo is in love in with George Allen this month, it seems," says Lizza, referring to the Virginia senator.

Still, the consensus view of those interviewed for this article is that Romney will get a serious hearing, and that he might well be able to turn his status as a Republican governor in an overwhelmingly Democratic state to his advantage — whereas Kerry, if he runs, will be hampered both by the fact that he’s already run and lost and by the Massachusetts-liberal label.

For instance, Bernadette Malone, former editorial-page editor of the Manchester Union Leader, who’s now a book editor for Sentinel, Penguin’s new conservative imprint, says, "A Massachusetts Democrat running for president, I think, is bad news. A Massachusetts Republican running for president is interesting." And California pollster Adam Probolsky, who works for Republican candidates and who recently wrote a piece for National Review Online arguing that Arnold Schwarzenegger could learn from Romney, told the Phoenix, "Romney governs in a state with barely double-digit Republican registration. That’s a monumental task, and he’s done very well with that."

Much of this will come down to the perceptions of the national political press. Howard Kurtz, who covers the media for the Washington Post and hosts CNN’s Reliable Sources, believes that, in this sense, Romney benefits where Kerry does not because Romney’s something of a novelty. "National reporters talk about whether any Democrat from Massachusetts can be elected president, because they believe that the stereotype of a New England lefty, fairly or unfairly, hurts such candidates in the heartland of America," Kurtz says. "I think John Kerry had more problems as a candidate than simply hailing from Massachusetts, but that shorthand often crept its way into journalists’ copy. But I don’t think there’s a similar perception that the media would use that against a Massachusetts Republican, although we’ve had little experience with one lately."

Interestingly enough, Houston Chronicle columnist Cragg Hines, who recently wrote a column ripping Romney’s death-penalty bill as a "stagey wave at the cheap seats," nevertheless thinks Romney may make a more attractive candidate than Kerry in 2008. "Kerry is smart and erudite, but he doesn’t carry it lightly," Hines says. "Romney, whom I’ve been around some — including a lunch that his people put on at the Republican National Convention for political reporters not from Massachusetts — might actually go down a little better."

David Yepsen, who covers politics for the Des Moines Register, thinks there’s no reason to believe that Kerry and Romney wouldn’t both be taken seriously. Iowa governor Tom Vilsack may run for the Democratic nomination in ’08, and if that happens no one would expect Kerry actually to win the Iowa caucuses, as he did in ’04. But Yepsen disputes the notion that the country is getting tired of the Bay State, saying that Massachusetts Democratic political operatives such as Michael Whouley ("I’ll bet he knows parts of this state better than he knows Massachusetts") are well-respected in Iowa. Yepsen also suspects that home-state skepticism about both Kerry and Romney is based at least in part on the old saw that familiarity breeds contempt. "Every presidential candidate has a problem with their hometown press," Yepsen observes. "You know these guys better than I do. And part of what’s going on with the hometown press is, how the hell does this guy mean to be president?"

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, believes that many national political reporters would like to see a Democrat win in 2008, and that few see Kerry as a winner. "There’s no real affection for him among the press, and there’s no sense that he was robbed. Even Gore had that, but it was negated by the active dislike," Sabato says. "Now, there’s no active dislike for Kerry, but they never warmed up to him either." As for Romney, Sabato says, "He has a kind of charisma — it’s not overwhelming charisma, but it’s a kind of charisma. The camera loves him. He’s more Kennedy-esque than Kerry was."

Ouch. For a politician like Kerry, who modeled much of his career after John Kennedy and whose very initials are JFK, that’s got to hurt.

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Issue Date: May 27 - June 2, 2005
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