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Mitt Romney finds Massachusetts his millstone

Evan Vucci | AP
Evan Vucci | AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney shakes hands during a campaign stop at Seilkop Industries in Cincinnati, Ohio, Thursday, June 14, 2012.

MARLBOROUGH, Mass. — Mitt Romney is kicking off his first big campaign sprint of the general election with a symbolic return on Friday morning to the same picturesque New Hampshire farm where he launched his campaign a year ago. From there, Romney will ramble through five other states on a five-day bus tour.

But although Romney will start just 12 miles from Massachusetts, his tour will bypass his home state altogether.

Massachusetts is where Romney moved for graduate school, ran a business, raised a family and served as governor. In pursuit of the presidency, however, Romney has all but ignored the state that was his launching pad.

While Romney’s studied moderation appealed to voters when he was elected to govern this traditionally liberal state, his bare ambition for higher office and lurch to the right made some people here distrust him. Some voters here who supported Romney in the early years of his governorship now say they feel abandoned by him, and more than half of the state’s voters hold an unfavorable opinion of Romney, according to a poll last month.

“Massachusetts to him was just a stepping stone,” said Judy Eisel-DeGrinney, 70. “Folks feel he was disingenuous, that he used us to further his political ambitions. He had no allegiance to us.” She said she did not vote for Romney in 2002, but admired his balancing of the budget and other actions in his first term. Then he announced he would not seek a second term and, in speeches to conservative activists out of state, started bashing Massachusetts as a liberal bastion. That’s when he lost her.

Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center, which conducts polling in Massachusetts, said, “There was an undercurrent that in his last two years in office he was already running for president and neglecting his duties as governor.”

The result is a presidential nominee who, more than any other in recent history, has distanced himself from his home state and is unpopular with the voters who know him best.

In certain respects that is not a surprise. Under the best circumstances, it is unlikely any Republican nominee could come close in Massachusetts, which has been one of the most reliably Democratic states in presidential elections in the past 11 campaigns, according to the American Almanac of Politics.

Yet the level of disregard for Romney seems to go beyond typical partisan politics. This is more than the kind of loathing that liberals in Austin once expressed for George W. Bush; instead, Romney seems to lack any strong base in his adopted home state, with voters across the state, including former supporters, expressing varying degrees of dissatisfaction and distrust.

That is true even here, in what might come closest to qualifying as “Romney Country,” at the heart of the state’s high-tech corridor, about a 45-minute drive west of Boston on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Mary Scott, a registered independent, said she voted for Romney in 2002 because she thought he would make things easier on small business owners like herself.

“I thought he was going to be more down to earth for the people,” she said.

Now, she said, “I’m not sure I can be supportive. I didn’t feel that he came through in the way that I pictured it.”

Romney’s supporters strongly disputed the notion that Romney’s standing here is weak.

“Clearly, Massachusetts is not considered a state that would be in play in November; it’s pretty much a safe state for the Democrats,” former Republican governor Paul Cellucci said. “But that doesn’t mean that Governor Romney doesn’t have a strong base of support, because he does.”

Romney set up his national headquarters in Boston’s North End, raises millions of dollars from many of the state’s wealthiest residents and returns to his downsized Belmont townhouse for short breaks from the campaign trail. Many of the campaign’s TV advertisements targeting New Hampshire voters air in the Boston market.

Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Romney and top aide in his governor’s office, noted that Massachusetts ranks fourth (behind New York, Florida and Texas) in total money raised for Romney’s campaign. And he pointed to a long roster of state elected officials who endorsed Romney early in the cycle.

“Mitt has many ties to Massachusetts,” Fehrnstrom said. “But in terms of the general election map, Massachusetts is not on our list of must-win states to get to 270 electoral votes.”

Indeed, Massachusetts is not in play. All recent public polls show President Obama with a double-digit lead over Romney, who ended his governorship in 2007 with a 34 percent approval rating. A 7 News-Suffolk University poll last month found that 36 percent of Massachusetts voters had a favorable opinion of Romney, with 54 percent unfavorable.

There are other signs of weakness here for Romney. When Massachusetts Republicans caucused recently to pick delegates to officially nominate Romney at this summer’s GOP convention in Tampa, they rejected many from Romney’s chosen slate, including his lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey. Instead, they elected Ron Paul supporters.

Romney has chosen to mark the major milestones of his campaign — his official announcement in June 2011 and his speech claiming the Republican nomination this April — in neighboring New Hampshire. He has held one public event in Massachusetts, but has spent more than 50 days in New Hampshire, which provided him a critical early victory in the primaries and looks to be a swing state in the general election.

Romney’s campaign rarely promotes Massachusetts surrogates who could attest to Romney’s life or accomplishments here. And although Romney has lived in Belmont for decades, the closest he has come to staging a “Welcome Home, Mitt” rally was his formal Super Tuesday election night speech at a nondescript hotel in downtown Boston.

“Everybody else has had a state where he has been rooted and Romney’s a major exception,” said Phil Johnston, who chaired the Massachusetts Democratic Party when Romney was governor. “He has no base. It’s extraordinary.”

It’s places like Marlborough that helped propel Romney into the governor’s office. The white-collar techies and blue-collar natives who populate this traditionally Democratic city voted nearly 2-to-1 for Romney in his 2002 race.

They were drawn to his pro-growth economic message, which resonated in a place where the tech bubble’s burst had left many people out of a job. Here was a businessman who said he could clean up the State House.

But now, some of Romney’s old supporters question his commitment to the state. “He’s not one of us,” said Jessica Clark, 35, a waitress, as she took a break at the Main Street Cafe one morning earlier this week. “We’re not necessarily his home base. He’s got houses all over the country, and so his home base is wherever he decides it is at the time.”

Others suggested that since leaving office Romney has spent more time in his San Diego beach house and New Hampshire vacation home than in Belmont. In 2009, Romney sold the Belmont mansion in which he raised his boys and moved into a two-bedroom condo.

“Since he was governor, I don’t think he’s spent a lot of time here,” said Mike Corbett, 65. “He’s not a native. … He went to Harvard, but he’s not from here. He pronounces his R’s.”

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