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Mitt Romney: Dogged by That Pet on the Roof

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So how did the story of Mitt Romney's dog go from being an asterisk in this campaign to one of the hottest stories in American political journalism?

The tale of Seamus, the Irish setter, is hardly new. On June 27, 2007, The Boston Globe reported that in 1983 the Romney family strapped the dog in a crate on the roof of the family station wagon and drove 12 hours from Boston to a lake house in Ontario. Somewhere along the way, poor Seamus soiled the crate and the car's back window. As The Globe reported it, Romney stopped at a gas station, hosed down Seamus and the car, put the dog back into the wind-protected kennel and drove on. It was a small, but telling, anecdote in a multipart profile of the candidate.

Back then, the story did cause some stir. Three days later, Globe reporter Michael Levenson wrote that "Time.com's swampland blog has been flooded with more than 300 comments from readers complaining of animal cruelty."

But the event, which just this week was dubbed "Crate Gate" by Patch.com, has been one more blip in the blogosphere of politics in the four plus years since. It's true, New York Times columnist Gail Collins made what she acknowledged was "a kind of game" of mentioning Seamus every time she wrote a column about the former Massachusetts governor. Still, her columns are often humorous, and her zings seemed largely light-hearted needling in a year of truly loony Republican politics.

No longer. Suddenly all hell is breaking loose around Seamus' seemingly tortured journey. But why?

Surely, the New Yorker's March 12 cover, titled "State by State," helped a bit. It shows a smiling Romney driving down the road in a red car with Rick Santorum in a doghouse strapped to the roof.

Perhaps even more telling is that Santorum campaign is starting to feed the flames itself. As the Huffington Post's Arthur Delaney blogged Sunday, Santorum's top advisor twice last week reminded voters that "Romney once drove to Canada with the family dog, Seamus, in a crate fastened to the roof of the car." And Santorum himself, he noted, on Sunday suggested on ABC's This Week that this dog story could be a matter of character.

Clearly the public is tuning in. Delaney's post cornered 5,214 comments in its first seven hours and Patch.com threw up a poll, asking readers: "Does It Matter That Romney Put His Dog on the Car's Roof?"

Over at Political Wire, under a headline "Seamus story dogs Romney," blogmaster Taegan Goddard linked to a Wall Street Journal article that noted the story had dominated political headlines this month.

Wrote the Journal, "Seamus the Irish Setter's ride on the Romney's station wagon roof is the story that wouldn't die, even though the dog itself did decades ago."

It's remarkable that the story could smolder for years before bursting into flames. But it also makes sense.

For one thing, we Americans love our dogs. I've had three golden retrievers myself and never once strapped any of them to to the roof. It would, in fact, never have entered my mind. But whether Romney's actions were an example of his "emotion-free crisis management," as that initial Globe story suggested, or something far crueler sort of demands the answer to a few questions. Did Seamus have a nice soft bed in the crate? Did he have his favorite chew toy? And did the screen Romney fashioned to mute the winds whipping over the roof work?

Still, the idea of cleaning up Seamus after his accident and sticking him back on the roof seems, at best, a little cold-hearted. And that's why Romney will never leave this story behind. It plays to his perceived weaknesses in his character. It resonates with voters leery of a candidate who already seems a bit too cool, a bit too calculating. He's shifted his positions on any number of issues to suit the Republican Right. He paid 13.9 percent in taxes on an income of $21.7 million in 2010, a rate "lower than that of a person earning $50,000," The Huffington Post reported. He told one Detroit gathering that his wife Ann drives "two Cadillacs." And he referred to nearly $375,000 in speaker's fees as "not very much."

In the end, Mitt Romney comes across as too distant, too rich and too out-of-touch. This is the reason why a 29-year-old story about a dog with a wonderful St. Patrick's Day name has him on the ropes. Even if he really does love those grits (and I doubt he does), you've got wonder whether he ever loved his dogs -- and what that might say about his ability to connect with the American people should he become their president.