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Romney’s first draft
The Massachusetts media could play a big role in shaping Mitt’s ’08 bid — or close to none at all

If a few recent incidents are any indication, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, widely viewed as a likely Republican presidential hopeful in 2008, is quite concerned about the hometown press.

In an interview with the Boston Globe published on December 22, Romney, with an eye on his national image, fretted that "the Boston media will be intent on trying to show that I have changed positions and moved right. It does that distorting effort on a regular basis."

In response to a Herald page-one splash that same day declaring I SHOULD’VE STAYED HOME: MITT’S REGRET ABOUT HIS POLITICAL CAREER, the governor batted off a letter to the editor calling the headline "a gross distortion of the exchange I had with your reporter." (Based on what appeared in the Herald interview, he’s got a pretty fair case.)

But for someone contemplating the presidency from a unique position — a political newcomer who has a national name thanks to the Olympics; a candidate with solid ante-up assets such as looks, wealth, and a strong political bloodline; a governor less likely to run on his Beacon Hill record than against the liberal culture of the state — these recent media dustups raise a crucial question. Put bluntly, do the famously aggressive and often parochial Massachusetts media matter? Put another way, will Romney need the local press to write the first chapter of his national biography, or has he already created enough of a story line to skip the "Romney 101" course that would traditionally serve as a primer for Beltway commentators and national kingmakers? Even though he’s the chief executive, it’s quite possible that Romney’s Republican candidacy can get along just fine without much help — or hindrance — from the state’s media machinery.

When Governor Michael Dukakis emerged from near obscurity to win the 1988 Democratic nomination, local journalists were instrumental in forging the "Massachusetts Miracle" campaign theme of the "Duke" as the super-competent technocrat behind the state’s booming economy. (Dukakis’s formal announcement in March 1987 was greeted the next day with 17 stories, features, and items in the Herald while the Globe ran eight stories and two columns. A much less impressed New York Times ran its story on page 16.)

That local-media role was considerably diminished during the 2004 candidacy of Senator John Kerry, who is far more of a Washington figure than a Massachusetts pol and who inspired no great loyalty or passion back at home.

Ironically, local journalists seem far more inclined than the national analysts to believe that the Massachusetts media will be marginalized by a Romney candidacy.

"I think the answer is the local press won’t be much of a factor," says Jon Keller, the CBS4 political analyst who broke the story that the governor wasn’t running for re-election. "If anything, the Massachusetts [situation] is sort of an oddity in his national résumé. If he plays it right, it could almost be forgotten."

Long-time Herald political writer Wayne Woodlief pretty much agrees, saying, "My first instinct is that he is trying to shape his national image to such good effect that he won’t need the Massachusetts media."

Not so, says Chuck Todd, editor-in-chief of the Hotline political digest, asserting that "because he’s only served in elective office [a few] years, those years are going to get a lot of scrutiny, and the Boston press will have the responsibility of writing the first draft." Adds ABC News political director Mark Halperin: "The Massachusetts press really does know him [and] will make him so familiar, and that’s an important role. It’s almost handing off the baton."

Maybe, but Romney has already managed to generate early buzz among Republican media and political insiders. A December National Journal survey asking 100 GOP officeholders and political pros to rank a candidate’s chances of capturing the 2008 nomination put Romney in third place behind senators George Allen and John McCain, in that order. And during The McLaughlin Group’s year-end awards show, Washington Times editorial-page editor Tony Blankley bestowed "most charismatic" honors on the Massachusetts governor who is "obviously going for the presidency."

Despite those promising early reviews, Romney’s national image is still a somewhat unfocused mush of perceptions and biography. "He is an unfinished portrait in the national media," offers CQ Weekly White House columnist Craig Crawford.

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Issue Date: January 6 - 12, 2006
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