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Wake-up call
Mitt Romney’s speech to the state GOP suggests a campaign strategy that raises the bar — in style, if not substance — for Democrats

LOWELL, APRIL 6, 2002 — Mitt Romney is going to be a formidable candidate. That much was already clear at the conclusion of his highly polished but short-on-specifics speech before delegates to the Republican State Convention last weekend. Delivering his speech from the TelePrompTer like a seasoned-pro — not always an easy task for a political candidate — he skillfully worked the audience with a voice, delivery, and demeanor reminiscent of a blow-dried TV news anchor. Then, just as he finished, Romney delivered the money shot. Kerry Murphy Healey, his pick for lieutenant governor (though not the pick of the convention, which went with long-declared candidate Jim Rappaport) rushed onto the stage and held up Romney’s hand in an exuberant victory clasp. The gesture set off a nearly 10-minute-long extravaganza worthy of a national convention, which seemed somewhat over the top and out of place among the collection of wanna-bes, ne’er-do-wells, and issue freaks who made up the gathering of state GOP delegates. Topping things off, the Romney team orchestrated an artillery barrage of red, white, and blue streamers and confetti set to the rousing strains of John Philip Sousa’s "Stars and Stripes Forever." Behind Romney and Murphy Healey, a television monitor broadcast footage of July Fourth fireworks over the Esplanade. And campaign TV crews were on hand to capture this scene for use in future commercials. Romney, the founder of Bain Capital, means business.

Romney pulled off a winning convention appearance, and he’s assembled a strong team of political consultants: Charles Manning, who was with the candidate during his 1994 Senate run; Rob Gray, who helped steer Paul Cellucci to victory in 1998; and Michael Murphy, who rather famously helped orchestrate the pre–South Carolina McCain boomlet in the 2000 presidential Republican primaries (succeeding even here in Massachusetts, where Governor Paul Cellucci went all out for Bush). Perhaps more relevant, Murphy made his name in Republican gubernatorial campaigns: John Engler’s successful run in Michigan and both of Christie Todd Whitman’s campaigns for governor of New Jersey.

But while coverage in the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald fixated on the fact that state GOP convention delegates snubbed Romney’s lieutenant-governor pick, the real story of the convention is what Romney’s actions signal about the campaign to come, which will be aimed less at the 12 percent of state voters who are registered Republicans and more at the 51 percent who are independents (i.e., unenrolled). In fact, his convention speech provides a road map of just how he intends to attract the state’s maverick voters. Throughout, he stressed three themes likely to become major parts of his campaign.

Romney is against Beacon Hill. "But when we look inward, to our government on Beacon Hill, we see a different, rusty machine that’s inefficient, out of touch, and failing," he said. "Oiled with patronage. Revved up to serve special interests instead of the common interests." The nominee went so far as to vow to "end both parties’ out-of-control political patronage once and for all."

His anti-special-interests message seems tailor-made for a year when voters are likely to be outraged by incumbents. His "straight talk" was reminiscent of McCain’s rhetoric in 2000; indeed, McCain will probably come to Massachusetts to campaign on Romney’s behalf. But don’t expect a McCain-style Straight Talk Express: the Romney campaign is wary of lifting too directly from previous political campaigns.

Romney is moderate enough to be electable in Massachusetts. In his speech, Romney invoked his Rockefeller-Republican roots. "My dad, George Romney, was a three-term governor of Michigan," he said. "He walked the streets of Detroit with Martin Luther King in support of civil rights. His courage was matched by that of my mother, Lenore, who ran for the US Senate in 1970 and took a stand advocating a woman’s right to choose ... in the days before Roe v. Wade, when abortion was not a choice, but a crime."

The candidate’s nod at abortion rights was not popular; the delegates responded with only tepid applause. This was the same crowd, after all, that cheered wildly for a loose cannon like secretary of state candidate Jack E. Robinson, who entered the convention to the theme from Rocky and proclaimed himself "pro-life" and "pro-gun."

Romney has the management experience to fix the state’s problems. The would-be governor recounted for the delegates his experiences with the Salt Lake City Olympics. "My mission is bringing us together and solving our problems with a new approach and our new energy," he declared, going on to describe how he found Salt Lake initially "disheartened by the scandal" and beset with a "demoralized workforce." He then described how he helped bring the budget back under control, cutting some $200 million. This experience, he claimed, will help him in Massachusetts: "I’ll bring a sharp new eye to the management problems of the Big Dig."

Following the convention, Romney was planning a retreat to Belmont to vanish from the scene for a time. While out of the limelight, he’ll bone up on local issues, which are not his strong suit — unsurprisingly, given the amount of time he’s spent out of state. In his speech, Romney alluded for the first time to a sprinkling of state issues. He praised Governor Jane Swift’s advocacy of the MCAS exam, but called for more pay for "good teachers" and "a remediation program" to help failing schools. He also alluded to the open space soon to be created by the depression of the Central Artery, noting, "We can recast the city center for the first time since Frederick Law Olmsted planned it 100 years ago."

Clearly, however, Romney will have to do better than that — a fact of which he is well aware. Upon entering the convention hall Saturday, he paid a visit to a booth run by the nonpartisan policy think tank MassINC. Romney was overheard telling MassINC executive director Tripp Jones that he has the group’s 2000 briefing book for statewide candidates. The candidate evidently will do some studying up.

Another way Romney plans to better acquaint himself with the state and its issues is through a Hillary Rodham Clinton–style listening tour that will take him to various cities to meet with voters. For Romney, these sit-downs will be as much about stressing his "Mr. Fix-It" reformer credentials as about specific issues. His handlers are uneasy about his simply reciting a laundry list of issues. "This campaign could be more about vision than issues," admitted one member of the Romney team.

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Issue Date: April 11 - 18, 2002
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