By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 26, 2005
BOSTON -- Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, exploring a possible presidential run in 2008, has a message for his fellow Republicans.
Take my state. Please!
"Being a conservative Republican in Massachusetts," he told a GOP audience in South Carolina, "is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention."
Bada-bing. For months, this blue-state governor has been pitching himself to conservatives in a way that campaign experts say is highly unusual -- perhaps even historic. Instead of talking about his home state with the usual lip-quivering pride, Romney uses it like a vaudeville comic would use his mother-in-law: as a laugh line.
As in: "There are more Republicans in this room tonight than I have in my state!" -- another joke he used in South Carolina.
The problem: Some people here in Massachusetts are not laughing. Political observers say Romney may have put himself in trouble for next year, when the "vegetarian convention" has another gubernatorial election scheduled.
"For an incumbent governor to make fun of the state seemed gratuitous," said Jeffrey M. Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "I think people sort of felt he was flipping the bird to voters here."
Romney, 58, is a transplant from Michigan who raised his family here and gained prominence as a Boston businessman. He has an actor's good looks, ample charisma as a speaker and a résumé that includes turning around the scandal-plagued 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.
He was elected governor in 2002 -- becoming the fourth consecutive Republican to hold that office. Bay State politicos explain this trend by saying that their Republicans usually tend to be moderate, and their majority Democratic Party tends to stage death-match-style gubernatorial primaries that leave candidates exhausted and broke.
For now, Romney is still just a governor and not officially a candidate for anything. He has not even said whether he will run for reelection, promising a decision on that this fall.
As far as the presidency goes, a spokeswoman described Romney's current status this way: "He's testing the waters. It's not a full-time testing of the waters."
Nevertheless, even in the water-testing stage, it is clear that he is trying something new.
Exhibit A of how politicians usually treat their home states: George W. Bush. For Bush, Texas has served as both a showcase for his educational reforms and a symbol of his grounding in the real world -- a place where he was proud to wear blue jeans and cut brush.
When Romney speaks to audiences out of state, however, he uses a different blueprint. He does describe policy successes achieved during his term as governor, including the streamlining of state bureaucracy and improvements in educational opportunities.
But the native-pride element is missing. Instead, Romney favors comedic riffs that depict him as a bemused and besieged "red dot" in a sea of liberalism.
For example, at a June speech to the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women, Romney had a routine that made fun of his state's far-over-budget "Big Dig" highway project, its problems with organized crime and its Democratic junior senator.
Specifically, he made fun of Sen. John F. Kerry's suntan, with a joke that included the term "Code Orange." That is bad for Kerry, but it also reminds people that Romney's state elected him.
Presidential campaign historians say they understand why Romney is doing it: He has to overcome the same "liberal Massachusetts" stereotype that has stymied previous Democratic presidential candidates such as Kerry and former Massachusetts governor Michael S. Dukakis.
But the same historians are hard-pressed to come up with any previous candidates who have tried the same tack.
Yanek Mieczkowski, a presidential historian at Dowling College in New York, said that Lyndon B. Johnson had to separate himself from racist elements in Texas, and Ronald Reagan did the same with the hippie fringe in California. Looking further back, there was Grover Cleveland, who in 1884 used the slogan "Grover the Good" to separate himself from the political corruption in his home state of New York.
But Romney is "much more overt," he said: It's not a fringe element he's talking badly about, it's the entire electorate.
"You have to be cautious about criticizing your own," Mieczkowski said. "It casts a negative light about you, and that's not good."
Romney declined to be interviewed for this story. In his stead, spokeswoman Julie Teer released a statement saying, in part, "Of course, the Governor loves Massachusetts." But the jokes will probably continue, she said.
Right now, his reelection prospects do not look great. In a survey last month that pitted Romney against the state attorney general -- a likely Democratic front-runner for 2006 -- the governor was trounced 51 percent to 38 percent.
This might be the case even without his out-of-state comedy routines. Romney has been criticized for the conservative stands he has taken on abortion, same-sex marriage and embryonic stem cell research, which are more in tune with the national Republican Party than with many Massachusetts voters.
But the jokes have not helped. Frank van Overbeeke, a chef at Matt Murphy's Pub in Brookline, said he had a question for the governor after hearing what he'd said about Massachusetts.
"Well," van Overbeeke said, "what are you doing here?"