As Mitt Romney heads into the first presidential debate Wednesday, he is in familiar territory. Ten years ago, Romney prepared to debate his rivals for governor of Massachusetts while he was down in the polls, disliked by many voters and distrusted because of his wealth.
Romney came back and won that race.
But by mid-September, it appeared that Romney had blown what once looked like an easy electoral victory. When Massachusetts Republicans traveled hat-in-hand to Utah to persuade Romney to come home and run for governor, polls had showed him beating every Democrat in the race. Now he was trailing state Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, who had won the Democratic nomination.
Like the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Romney’s Massachusetts campaign had focused on “humanizing” the candidate, making him seem more likeable.
Ann Romney talked about their first date, saying that her future husband picked her up in ”some goofy-looking car” and then ran out of gas on the way home.
The Democrats went so far as to fact-check this saccharine ad, putting out a press release titled “Romney Actually Drove Cool Car.”
The spot also featured a shirtless Romney in a bathing suit at the lake with his sons. It was quickly pulled.
Romney held “work days” where he helped fix cars, pave roads and pick up garbage, all designed to to combat his image as a rich guy who doesn’t understand regular working people.
When the footage was used in a campaign commercial, radio talk show hosts mocked it as the “Village People ad,” with Romney playing construction worker and policeman. (Massachusetts politicians didn’t yet pretend to be Indians.)
Humanizing Romney wasn’t working, so the campaign tried a different pitch.
Instead of portraying Romney as someone who could do every blue-collar job in the commonwealth, they focused on his ability to do the job he was actually running for — particularly his ability to close Massachusetts’ large budget deficit.
While the Republican Party label was a liability in the deep-blue state, the Romney camp scored points by reminding independents — by now a plurality of registered voters — that their opponent was a partisan Democrat.
When O’Brien called herself a watchdog of the state treasury, they went up with ads depicting her instead as a sleeping basset hound letting the old boys’ network on Beacon Hill spend taxpayer dollars with impunity.
Romney relentlessly attacked her record, delivering some of the sharpest lines himself. While some of his lines would come back to haunt him when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination — such as when he repeatedly denied he took the “position of a pro-life candidate” and mocked O’Brien for suggesting he had once accepted the endorsement Massachusetts Citizens for Life — Romney was a skilled, aggressive debater.
It was O’Brien who perhaps had the biggest debate misstep, during a one-on-one encounter with Romney that excluded the third party candidates for governor. She wanted to reduce the age at which a young woman could obtain an abortion without parental consent to 16; Romney wanted to preserve the current law.
Moderating the debate, NBC’s Tim Russert asked O’Brien why she would support a minor being able to have an abortion without parental consent at an age where she would need her parents’ permission to get a tattoo. O’Brien replied, “Want to see my tattoo?”
That is one of the reasons the Massachusetts governor’s race — the only election Romney has ever won — isn’t entirely applicable to the 2012 campaign. Barack Obama isn’t Shannon O’Brien. Obama is an incumbent president, while O’Brien was a one-term state treasurer who had already lost a previous statewide contest to a Republican.
A struggling gubernatorial campaign is also easier to turn around than a presidential race, because of the multiple battleground states and media markets. One of Romney’s 2002 advisers told the Boston Globe that running for governor was like operating a Jet Ski while a presidential bid is more like an ocean liner.
Moreover, a decade ago Romney didn’t have to protect his right flank. He could hit Democrats for being too liberal on taxes, crime and the death penalty while at the same time echoing predecessor Michael Dukakis that elections were about competence, not ideology.
Today Romney is running as the nominee of a party whose members see him as insufficiently conservative, forcing him to constantly reassure his base.
Yet if Romney turns in a debate performance that is confident and hard-hitting rather than warm and fuzzy, it may be with Massachusetts in mind.
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