In seeking the support of the social and fiscal conservatives who traditionally have decided the outcome of the Republican presidential primary, Romney has to reconcile how, five years ago, he asked the liberal-leaning voters of the Bay State for the same vote of confidence.
Romney is as skilled a politician as any in the GOP field. A top aide to former Virginia senator ? and one-time Establishment favorite ? George Allen grudgingly admires how Romney "blew past us" once Allen got sidetracked by his reelection fight. Romney has survived two debates unscathed, and his investments in Iowa and New Hampshire are starting to pay off in rising poll numbers.
He might just be smooth enough to survive this clumsy mess of inconvenient residency and conveniently timed changes of heart.
We've seen presidential candidates hold up their home bases as assets, supposed proof to their parties that they can convert some sought-after state in the general election. We've also seen candidates get hammered by opponents for where they come from ? namely, the two previous nominees to hail from Massachusetts.
Not in recent memory have we seen a candidate treat his own state as a liability. But after four years of governing Massachusetts and only five months out of office, that's what Romney is doing.
No more small swipes in speeches and meetings with conservative groups; Romney is taking his critique national. First came a bizarre sartorial joke during a televised debate ("Have you ever bought a suit and look at it, and you can't tell if it is blue or black? That is how blue Massachusetts is"). A new, much clearer TV ad touts more clearly how, "in the toughest place," Romney did "the toughest things." Top Romney aide Matt Rhoades says there is more in the works.
The accompanying background sheet lays out how, as governor, a conservative Romney took on liberal Goliath Massachusetts, curbing its urges to tax, spend, expand embryonic stem cell research and pave the way for gay marriage and over-the-counter morning-after pills, only to see the state relapse under his Democratic successor.
We knew this was coming. An internal Romney campaign memo reported by the Boston Globe earlier this year set up the state as a potential bogeyman for him to run against.
Rhoades rejects the suggestion that the ad and other critiques are a knock on Massachusetts, calling that a "construct that's out there" and insisting that the attacks are focused on the liberal policies and left-leaning legislature that exist in the state.
Asked whether they plan to clarify that in future efforts, he said no.
Will conservatives buy Romney's argument that he carried their banner into battle against Massachusetts' profligacy? They're no more comfortable with top Romney rivals Rudy Giuliani or John McCain. Or will they ? and the broader U.S. electorate, should Romney win the nomination ? come to see Massachusetts as the sum of all flip-flops for which Romney can't be trusted?
Abortion. Stem cell research. Immigration. The drip-drip of Romney's timely conversions to conservative positions goes on. On Sunday, the Washington Post editorialized about the difference between "Massachusetts Romney's" support for campaign finance reforms such as spending limits and public financing, and candidate Romney's pledge to repeal McCain-Feingold, a law the GOP base despises.
Candidates regularly try to distance themselves from votes they come to regret. Federal lawmakers have an easier time finessing it; they often get multiple chances to vote on the same bill, or the complexities of the legislative process give them an out.
It's harder for a governor to repudiate the inclinations of his electorate after asking for their votes.
Still, you can't blame Romney for trying. In turning the state into a whipping post, he's onlfollowing his party's lead. The influence traditionally wielded by the GOP base in its presidential primary is such that the safer bet is to spurn Massachusetts rather than embrace it and expect brownie points for winning there.
And unlike Giuliani, Romney faced no national tragedy during his tenure to help him transcend his left-leaning constituency. Instead of the Sept. 11 attacks, he got the wildly expensive and messy Big Dig. His chosen route to the GOP nomination requires him to downplay his biggest policy achievement, a law requiring the coverage of the uninsured, which is absent from the new TV ad and press release recapping his conservative successes.
Rhoades again calls it "a construct out there the governor is distancing himself from his health care plan," which "is just not the truth." Health care comes up regularly at Romney's events, he says ? usually because audience members ask about it. The campaign plans to start bringing it up more.
Geography in presidential politics has become shorthand for ideology. Democrats go gaga for prospective red-state candidates who at least in theory can appeal across the aisle. The sound of a Southern accent makes their knees weak. The former governors of Virginia and Indiana were planning to run on those credentials this year until they dropped out for unrelated reasons. There was even a brief boomlet for the governor of Montana.
Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry never dissed Massachusetts, but he launched his first big tour as his party's nominee from his birthplace in Colorado.
Romney based his campaign in Boston but launched it in Michigan, where his father was once governor. In Republican primary politics, to the extent that geography factors in, it is as a disqualifier. A candidate's hometown or state only matters if it's cause to make the base worry that he or she isn't conservative enough.
A student of GOP tactics would have to wonder what national party operatives would make of Romney's maneuvering if he were a Democrat.
In the past two presidential elections, they pounced on the backgrounds of the Democratic nominees, folding them into broader caricatures of those potential presidents as shifty and inconsistent. In 2000, the Republican National Committee offered reporters a mock tour of then-Vice President Al Gore's "childhood home" at what used to be the Ritz in Washington, where he lived when his father served in the Senate, as part of their effort to highlight Gore's tendency to futz with his background.
Kerry didn't need the RNC's help in highlighting unexpected twists in his biography that came up during the 2004 race; his hometown paper reported that he's a lot less Irish, and a lot more Jewish, than anyone thought. But one of Republicans' most devastating attacks on Kerry used his own favorite hobby against him: windsurfing off Nantucket, tacking back and forth.
At least Romney shot varmint in Michigan.
Elizabeth Wilner is a Politico contributing editor.