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Bay State of mind
John Kerry and Mitt Romney gear up for í08. But is America sick of Massachusetts?

HERE WE GO again. Just seven months after yet another Massachusetts presidential contender was rejected by the electorate ó and just a little less than three and a half years before voters will choose a successor to George W. Bush ó it looks like the Bay State political establishment will not avail itself of the opportunity to sit this one out. Oh no, quite the contrary.

The 2004 Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry, barely paused for a quick windsurfing break last November before returning to the campaign trail, sending out a blizzard of e-mails to his supporters over such issues as childrenís health care and the controversial nomination of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. Prior to the May 14 Democratic State Convention, in Lowell, Kerry urged delegates not to support a resolution in favor of same-sex marriage, which many Democrats took as a sure sign that heís running in í08.

Meanwhile, the stateís Republican governor, Mitt Romney, has been traveling out of state for months, blasting gay marriage and embryonic-stem-cell research, and unveiling a crowd-pleasing but impractical proposal to reinstate the death penalty. Heís even gone so far as to rebrand his cautious support for abortion rights as "pro-life." A moderate conservative from the time of his failed 1994 US Senate campaign against Ted Kennedy, Romney now appears to be moving to the right, the better to impress the conservative activists whoíll vote in the 2008 Republican primaries.

The last Massachusetts candidate who actually won the presidency was John Kennedy, in 1960. Since then, we have witnessed an unbroken string of futile bids: Ted Kennedy, who challenged incumbent president Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980. Michael Dukakis, who won the Democratic nomination in 1988 and built up a huge lead over George H.W. Bush, only to blow it down the stretch. The late Paul Tsongas, whose long-shot Democratic campaign in 1992 knocked Bill Clinton off his stride for maybe a couple of weeks. And, of course, Kerry, who lost to George W. Bush narrowly, but who lost nevertheless.

There are two reasons the country only rarely experiences the unique misfortune of not having a Massachusetts politician on the presidential-campaign trail. The first is our stateís hubristic political culture, which leads virtually every moderately successful officeholder to believe he is uniquely suited for national leadership. The second ó which actually goes a long way toward explaining the first ó is that New Hampshire, whose first-in-the-nation primary remains a key to choosing the eventual nominees, is in Bostonís back yard. Not that the presence of a Massachusetts candidate is a bad thing for the national political press, observes former Democratic consultant Michael Goldman, co-host of Bloomberg Radioís Simply Put (heard locally on WBBR Radio, AM 1130, on weekdays from 8 to 10 p.m.). "Everyone would rather have a steak and drinks and a salad in downtown Boston than in downtown Manchester. This is a great city to come to," says Goldman.

Jack Beatty, a senior editor for the Atlantic Monthly and a commentator for On Point, on WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), has watched the Granite State phenomenon from both sides of the border: the biographer of the legendary Boston pol James Michael Curley now lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, right up the road from Dartmouth College. "A Massachusetts candidate can count on respectful attention and possibly even victory in New Hampshire. Thatís just the way it is," he says. But Beatty adds that though the Massachusetts connection may be an asset in the New Hampshire primary, thatís hardly the case elsewhere: "In the rest of the country, it stands for an activist judiciary trying to ruin the basis of the American family, trying to legalize gay marriage. So I just think that itís a loser in the current cultural atmosphere, given the Republican domination of right-wing cultural populism."

Not surprisingly, Mike Dukakis takes issue with the notion that being from Massachusetts is a detriment in presidential politics. "Itís part of the tradition, and we take it seriously," says Dukakis, a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University. "Itís always been that way, from the beginning of the republic." Also not surprisingly, Dukakis believes Kerry can win, and that he lost in í04 mainly because the Democrats did not have as good a grassroots organization as the Republicans did.

"John is John, but heís got great strengths, and like all of us heís got weaknesses," Dukakis says of his former lieutenant governor. "Let me tell you this: he was a better candidate than I was, and he ran a better campaign."

BUT IF Democrats have been down the Bay State road before with Kerry and his long string of predecessors, such is not the case with Republicans. And it could well be that whatís a negative for Kerry is an asset for Romney.

Romney is the fourth consecutive Republican to serve as governor, which means that he isnít quite as exotic a specimen as some out-of-state observers might think. But unlike Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Jane Swift ó moderates with liberal instincts on some social issues ó Romney is a real conservative. Conservative enough for South Carolina? Perhaps not. But conservative enough to make the argument that if he can succeed in the bluest state in the nation, then he can succeed anywhere. For Kerry, Massachusetts is something of an albatross. For Romney, it may be an asset. "I think itís intriguing to a lot of people," says Republican political consultant Charles Manning, a Romney adviser, who adds that he has no idea whether the governor will actually run.

WBZ-TV (Channel 4) political reporter Jon Keller thinks the national media may respond to "the whole family-dynasty angle," noting that Romneyís father, George, was a Republican presidential candidate in 1968. "The Kennedy analogies, the media will love that," Keller says. "The guy who ran against Kennedy, then became king of Kennedy country." As for Kerry, Keller adds, "Itís a horror show, because not only does he carry the baggage of his own failed campaign, which to some extent churned up a lot of bad feeling about Massachusetts, but he also carries the old Dukakis and Kennedy baggage. Which is unfair, but thatís the way the cookie crumbles."

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Issue Date: May 27 - June 2, 2005
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