MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Mitt Romney is the latest in a lengthy line of Massachusetts politicians who have tried to become the first president since John F. Kennedy to hail from the Bay State.
Since Kennedy's presidency was cut short by his assassination, three Massachusetts senators –- Teddy Kennedy in 1980, Paul Tsongas in 1992, and John Kerry in 2004 -- and two Massachusetts governors –- Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Romney in 2008 –- have run unsuccessfully for president.
Romney's opponents, namely former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, are trying to turn his Massachusetts roots into a negative in the Republican presidential primary.
Gingrich traveled to a World War II history museum in Wolfeboro on Saturday, stood in front of a Pershing tank, and drew a straight line between Romney and the disastrous photos taken of Dukakis riding in a tank in 1988.
"I look at this tank lovingly because I remember Michael Dukakis," Gingrich said. "It's just a reminder that governors of Massachusetts don't always make good presidents."
On a conference call with supporters last week, Gingrich said Romney is "in the Dukakis, Kerry tradition of a Massachusetts moderate." The linkage of Dukakis' tank moment with Romney's play-it-safe, methodical march to the presidential nomination may or may not help Gingrich in his quest to defeat the GOP frontrunner, but it undoubtedly plays into Democratic attempts to accentuate the idea that Romney has failed to inspire many Republican voters.
Unsurprisingly, Gingrich's comparison was rejected both by the Romney campaign and by the Massachusetts political establishment.
"I can't think of two people who are more unalike than Mike Dukakis and Mitt Romney. You won't see Mitt Romney in a tank. I will tell you that," Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom told The Huffington Post Saturday.
"He's not part of the dominant political culture in Massachusetts, but he considers the four years he spent as governor to be one of the great privileges of his life," Fehrnstrom continued. "He came to the statehouse in Boston as an outsider and four years later he left as an outsider."
There are some clear reasons Romney may want to lay claim to the Massachusetts mantle. Despite a long losing streak in presidential campaigns, it is noteworthy that the state has produced so many top-tier candidates..
"I think a lot of it is the legacy of Jack Kennedy, and the sense of possibility that he created among an entire generation of people," said Leslie Dach, who worked on Kennedy's 1980 campaign and then went on to advise Dukakis and Kerry.
"The Kennedys created a dynamic where politicians in Massachusetts played on the national scene and thought of themselves as being capable of playing on the national scene," Dach said.
But in a modern day Republican primary campaign, the "northeastern elite" label is just as bad as the "Washington elite" label. Romney has been running away from both, casting himself as a businessman who was sidetracked by political pursuits out of a desire to practice good citizenship and the goodness of his heart.
"I went to Massachusetts to make it different. I didn't go there to begin a political career, running time and time again," Romney said during a debate Sunday, when pressed by former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) on why he didn't run for reelection in 2006 after his first term as governor.
This drew an indignant, incredulous response from Gingrich.
"Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney? The fact is you ran in '94 and lost," Gingrich said, referring to Romney's run for Kennedy's senate seat.
Turning to address Romney's one-term as governor, Gingrich said that Romney was "out of state for something like 200 days preparing to run for president."
"You happened to lose to McCain as you had lost to Kennedy. Now you're back running. You've been running consistently for years and years and years. So this idea that suddenly citizenship showed up in your mind — just level with the American people," Gingrich said. "You've been running … at least since the 1990s."
In Massachusetts, everyday voters and top political figures alike don't really consider Romney to be part of their legacy, or even part of the state.
"He's not here anymore. Isn't he now a resident of New Hampshire? Where is he? Or is it La Jolla? I don't know," Dukakis said in a phone interview. "La Jolla. Salt Lake. It's just — I don’t know how he lives with himself, to tell you the truth."
Romney has in fact maintained his Massachusetts residency. He registered to vote there in 2010 using his son's address during an interim period in which he and his wife Ann had sold a $3.5 million home in Belmont and were bidding on a smaller condominium in the same town.
Dukakis said he had been "a huge fan" of Romney's father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, who was the first auto company CEO in Detroit to pioneer the manufacturing of a smaller, more fuel-efficient car. Romney now mentions the car, called the Rambler, regularly on the campaign trail.
"Truth be known, I courted Kitty in a little yellow Rambler convertible," Dukakis said of his wife. "[George Romney] was a damn good governor of Michigan, he was a fine secretary of Housing and [Urban] Development, and I thought we were getting a junior version of George."
"And Mitt certainly sounded like that in the Senate campaign against Kennedy. And then I don’t know what you call this metamorphosis, but I think it’s just appalling," Dukakis said.
Voters in north Boston, near Romney's campaign headquarters, were also less than by the candidate.
"He talks like a politician," said Bill Braingwynne, a 48-year old general contractor who wore a paint-splattered New England Patriots cap and red sweatshirt. "I think he just jumps around too much, flip-flopping and shIt like that."
"I wish I could get money for lying," Braingwynne said, holding a cigarette between his fingers.
"I don't even think he's from Massachusetts," said Anthony Taglieri, a 62-year old retired tree climber for the city of Boston who sported grey sweatpants and a blue fleece. "He goes along with whatever anybody wants."
Of course, Massachusetts voters are not really the ones that Romney is aiming to win over, since the state is not important in the Republican primary and is not a swing state in the general election. But Romney's time in Massachusetts has helped him establish a major presence here in New Hampshire, a key state in which the nation's first primary takes place.
Romney's lead in New Hampshire has been strong all year, often reaching more than 20 points. But as Tuesday's primary has drawn close, Romney has begun to show signs of slowing down a bit. He is still expected to win the state, and the nomination, but a weak showing here followed by a loss in South Carolina would perhaps give a Romney alternative such as Santorum or Gingrich new life, spurring them to try to sustain their campaigns into the spring and wage a delegate fight.
The Massachusetts Democratic establishment assumes Romney will become the GOP nominee, said Bob Shrum, an adviser to Kennedy, Kerry and numerous other Democratic presidential candidates. And while they reject their former governor, Bay State Democrats hope that Romney continues one particular aspect of the state's recent political legacy.
"I'm hoping Romney becomes the sixth on your list," Shrum said, referring to unsuccessful runs at the presidency since Kennedy. "He's the only plausible Republican in this pathetic field, but the dogs don't like the dog food, and they keep telling us that."