‘He’s not a favorite son’: In search of Romney Fever in Massachusetts, which votes on Super Tuesday

BELMONT, Mass.--Next to the register at Asai, an Asian restaurant here, hangs a photograph of Mitt Romney, his arm slung awkwardly around the husband-and-wife owners. It's intended to convey a neighborly familiarity. Romney lived in this comfortable inner-ring Boston suburb for more than 30 years, and he and his wife still own a condo here. But the former governor doesn't exactly appear to be a regular: None of the staff could remember seeing him come in. "I met his son once," the hostess offered.

This is about as intense as displays of hometown pride for Romney get. The morning after the Republican front-runner eked out a crucial victory in the primary in Michigan--the state of his birth--and just days before Massachusetts itself will vote on Super Tuesday, signs of excitement over the state's adopted son were elusive.

At the Belmont Hill Club, a health club just down the road from Romney's longtime home, you'd have no idea that a former member had just notched a major win in his quest for the White House. "People kind of come and do their thing and leave," the club's director explained. "We're not real political." The editor of the local paper, the Belmont Citizen-Herald, wasn't able to offer much information about the town's most famous resident, either. "I believe they have voted when there is an election," Joanna Tzouvelis told Yahoo News apologetically.

Romney's national reputation is that of a bland, competent technocrat: someone whom voters might turn to out of pragmatism, but who inspires little of the adoration that successful presidential candidates from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama have often generated. It's an image he's acknowledged himself."It's very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments," he said last week. "I'm not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support. I am who I am."

But if a core of passionate Romney backers exists anywhere, you would expect it to find it in Massachusetts, the place where he built his adult life after enrolling at Harvard Business School in the early 1970s, where he served as governor for four years, and which he refers to as "my state." With that in mind, Yahoo News took a trip to the Bay State in search of Romney Fever.

There were few overt signs of anything you might call Mitt Mania--a brief tour of Belmont turned up not one visible Romney bumper sticker or yard sign--but that's in part thanks to the candidate's strength in the state. The few polls that have been conducted suggest the former governor is likely to win about 60 percent of the vote on Tuesday, and none of the candidates have actively campaigned here.

Among Massachusetts's Republican insiders, Romney enjoys rock solid support, if not outright devotion. Every Republican state lawamker has publicly backed him for president.

"I've known him for nearly 20 years," Brad Jones, the minority leader of the state house, told Yahoo News in an interview. "The characteristics of family and faith and commitment he displays, albeit in a more quiet and matter-of-fact way, stand him and shoulders above the rest of the field."

Still, there's often a hint of apology in the praise. "Over the years, I've grown to respect Governor Romney's positions and what he can do for the country," Jennifer Nassour, who stepped down in October as the state Republican chairwoman, told Boston magazine recently when she announced her support for him. "You're not going to agree with someone 100 percent of the time, and that goes for our political candidates as well." ("I adore" Romney, Nassour told Yahoo News in an email, declining an interview days after giving birth to her third child.)

At the grassroots level, things appear more tepid still. "There's no wild enthusiasm here," Maurice Cunningham a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and a veteran observer of the state's politics, told Yahoo News. Cunningham said he recently gave a speech to a suburban Republican political organization and found little interest in the presidential race. "They were more focused on their own candidates," he said. "They weren't talking a lot about the primaries."

"He's not a favorite son," Tom Whalen, a social science professor at Boston University and a frequent political commentator, told Yahoo News. "This is not JFK in 1960."

Even beyond the liberal Boston area, enthusiasm for Romney is tough to discern. "To be honest, I can't say that there is any visible excitement for Romney," Matt Szafranski, a political blogger in Springfield, the state's third largest city, told Yahoo News in an email.

The Romney campaign didn't respond to a request for comment on the level of enthusiasm for the candidate in his home state. It likewise ignored a request to provide information about the volunteer operation at its national headquarters in Boston, and declined to let us in for a firsthand look.

At least among Republicans, part of the reason for the lack of intensity is the memory of Romney's one term as governor, which ran from 2003 until 2007. Republicans can hardly tout his signature achievement--the passage of a health care law that drastically expanded access to coverage--thanks to its similarity to President Obama's own health care measure.

"There is no more enthusiasm here than there has been anywhere else," Jim Rappaport, a Republican business executive and former state party chair, who has been a frequent Romney critic, told Yahoo News via email. "There was significant disappointment in his term here, as he was not perceived as having accomplished much."

Nor did Romney do much for the struggling Massachusetts GOP. After his slate of candidates suffered a wipeout at the polls in 2004, the governor was unusually frank about the approach he planned to take going forward. "From now on, it's me, me, me," he told an interviewer.

As a party-builder, Romney was "a disaster," Cunningham said.

Among Massachusetts residents as a whole, there's even a sense of ill will, beyond the natural antipathy you'd expect between blue state voters and a Republican presidential candidate. People remember, and not fondly, Romney's unusual practice, during the second half of his term as governor, of running down his own state as a liberal nightmare while touring the country--and shifting rightward--in the service of his national ambitions. "That didn't sit too well with people here," Cunningham said.

Facing a difficult re-election fight--made more so by his move to the right--Romney declined to run again, and left office with a dismal 34 percent approval rating. "There's a general consensus that he used Massachusetts as a stepping stone for higher office," Whalen said.

That's forced even Romney's loyal Massachusetts backers to strain at times when making the case for the local pol made good.

"You don't see people out in the street waving Mitt Romney signs at this point," Dan Haley, a Republican activist and lawyer who served as deputy counsel in Romney's administration, acknowledged in an interview with Yahoo News.

"But in Massachusetts, if nothing else, when Mitt says he has an executive personality where he defines and solve problems, we know that's true," Haley, now a partner at McDermott, Will, and Emery, went on to say.

"So to the extent that there's a perception out there that is what the country needs right now, then yeah, people who know Mitt are enthusiastic about Mitt."

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