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A campaign primer
How Shannon O'Brien can beat Mitt Romney in November

AT 11:15 P.M. Tuesday night, the Democrats brought the heavy artillery onto the stage at the Westin Hotel in the form of Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy. After a rousing introduction from Kennedy (who got a huge response from the crowd when he dubbed himself "the only one in this room who’s beaten Jack E. Robinson and Mitt Romney" and predicted the victory of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shannon O’Brien in the general election), O’Brien slowly made her way to the stage, high-fiving and hugging her supporters in the crowd. On stage, she grabbed the hand of her running mate, venture capitalist Chris Gabrieli, and held it high in the air as Kerry, Kennedy, and other Democrats applauded vigorously. About halfway into her acceptance speech — a rousing mix of feisty taunts ("Bring it on, Mitt!") and campaign rhetoric (vows to "end the gridlock on Beacon Hill") — Kerry leaned over to O’Brien and whispered, "Bob Reich is here." O’Brien stopped her speech and looked for Reich, who was standing at the edge of the stage. She left the dais and hugged him, too. All in all, it was an impressive show of Democratic unity from a party that all but out-and-out sabotaged the campaign of its last gubernatorial-primary winner, former state attorney general Scott Harshbarger.

O’Brien’s speech signaled the messages she will hammer home during the general campaign on the issues of fiscal discipline (she offers "straight talk," while Republican nominee Mitt Romney offers "fantasy"), education (Romney supports vouchers), and health care (O’Brien supports a plan to lower prescription-drug costs). The bottom line? The coming election offers a choice, she said, "between someone ... whose record and ideas leave working families and those in need behind and a fiscally responsible Democrat who has always believed that government must be a catalyst to help all people help themselves."

It’s going to take more than party unity and the pushing of Democratic ideals to defeat Romney in November, however. If, as they most surely will be tempted to do, the Democrats play exclusively to their strong union and socially progressive base, and paint Romney as far to the right of the state electorate, O’Brien will lose. (This is true despite the fact that labor’s get-out-the-vote effort probably helped Birmingham climb five points in the polls in the last week of the campaign.) It’s not that Romney isn’t a conservative candidate, perhaps the most conservative gubernatorial candidate the state has seen since Ed King in 1982. It’s that the Democrats need to remember something: they represent only 36 percent of the state electorate. Republicans account for 13 percent, and unenrolled voters — the independents who decided the last three gubernatorial elections — make up the bulk of state voters at 51 percent.

Going into the fall campaign, the party seems to know this. Focus groups run by Democratic operatives suggest there is fertile ground among independent voters for O’Brien, largely because most voters lack a concrete idea of who Romney is. Voters also have a strong interest in candidates who can position themselves as "problem-solvers" focused on issues such as education, health care, and housing, where Democrats generally hold the edge. This research, for instance, shows that Senator Ted Kennedy, the granddaddy of Big Labor and establishment Democratic politics, is extremely popular among these swing voters. Why? Because he delivers for Massachusetts, whether it’s making sure federal aid keeps flowing to the Big Dig, hospitals, and universities or standing up for health care and other issues. Expect to see a lot of Kennedy out on the trail stumping for O’Brien — the party would be asleep at the switch not to call on the candidate who trounced Romney back in 1994.

In addition, the gender gap will be a point in O’Brien’s favor. Women usually make up 53 percent of the electorate in a general race. But O’Brien can’t run simply as a pro-choice woman and expect to win. She has to combine her gender with her credentials as a fiscal manager. She did this deftly in her "Old West" ads, where an old cowboy’s voice chides the "boys" — her opponents — for attacking her handling of the pension fund. Also, O’Brien held the pro-choice, pro-Democratic political-action committee EMILY’s List in check during the primary. The PAC ran plenty of high-priced TV ads, but did so with spots that emphasized O’Brien’s management skills rather than her feminist qualifications. This will come in handy in the general race as well.

But beyond emphasizing party unity, capitalizing on gender politics, and attracting swing voters, O’Brien needs to do three things to win in November:

Scratch the Teflon. Since returning from Utah last March, Romney has experienced an extraordinary run in state politics. He has been allowed to coast almost unscathed in his campaign efforts. It’s true that the state Democratic Party’s attempt to keep Romney off the ballot backfired. (State voters believed that Romney ought not to be barred from the ballot due to a technicality.) But that Democratic fishing expedition also exposed the fact that Romney, the consummate "fiscal manager," had less than complete command of his own financial dealings. In addition, when caught giving a Utah address in order to take a tax deduction, he promptly blamed his accountants — an increasingly difficult thing to do in an environment that has turned against corporate greed. (Even Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric and a heretofore-untouchable corporate role model and business idol — complete with a $7.1 million book advance and groupies! — is now the subject of scrutiny by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the press for his $2.5 million GE retirement package.)

To be sure, O’Brien took political hits during the primary for being at the helm of the state pension fund at a time when the fund has lost money. But Romney, a former corporate executive, should be even more vulnerable. Even during the run-up to the boom years in the 1990s, Kennedy was able to portray him in an unflattering light given the Republican’s past business activities: during the 1994 race, Kennedy highlighted Romney’s role in the corporate takeover of Ampad, a paper and office-supply company owned by Romney’s venture-capital firm, Bain Capital. After Bain purchased the company, more than 350 workers were laid off and health benefits were slashed.

In his acceptance speech, lieutenant-governor candidate Gabrieli gave hints of what’s to come. "Mitt has spent his career refinancing companies from the top down, destroying jobs and making money at the expense of others," O’Brien’s running mate declared. Aside from some scrutiny of Romney’s position on an audit committee for the Marriott Corp., which lost $85 million in 2001, the Republican campaign so far has remained relatively free of press coverage about Romney’s post-1994 financial exploits. Indeed, there have been no significant investigations into Romney’s business activities since his race against Kennedy; expect the Boston Globe to deliver one in the coming weeks. All told, state Democratic research shows that voters still know very little about Romney, other than that he is rich and that he helped fix the Olympics. In other words, he’s vulnerable if the Democrats can cast him in the mold of Wall Street villain Gordon Gekko.

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Issue Date: September 19 - 26, 2002
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