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‘Mass. moderate’ insult has local GOP wincing

They just may have become the two dirtiest words in the Republican lexicon: Massachusetts moderate. In the waning hours of the New Hampshire primary campaign, Newt Gingrich has employed them like a battering ram against Mitt Romney.

The moderate GOP thrived for generations in the Northeast, built on the proud, fiscally conservative traditions of Yankee Republicans. But during this presidential primary season, Massachusetts moderate has become a curse in conservative circles almost as vile as calling someone a Democrat or, even worse, a liberal.

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On virtually every stop on the trail, Gingrich bashes the Massachusetts moderate or its contemptible corollary, “the timid Massachusetts moderate.’’

The Romney campaign dismisses the insult as the desperate act of a flagging candidacy, but some traditional Massachusetts Republicans cringe each time they hear the supposed slur.

“I have heard the speaker lower this pejorative, and I guess I’m in the line of fire,’’ said John W. Sears, a longtime Republican activist and former chairman of the Massachusetts state party who served in the administration of Governor Francis W. Sargent. “I’m an old-fashioned, center-fielding Republican. And I don’t know that Governor Romney quite qualifies.’’

Several other moderate Republicans from Massachusetts agreed with Sears that Romney hailed from the more conservative quarters of the state party. But when Romney ran for governor in 2002, he described himself in a television interview in terms he may now regret, a made-for-the-Internet moment making the rounds this primary season.

“I’m someone who is moderate,’’ Romney told New England Cable News on the eve of his gubernatorial election. “My views are progressive.’’

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William F. Weld, the former governor who for many personifies a successful Massachusetts moderate Republican, yesterday underscored the volatility of the political climate for middle-of-the-road members of the GOP.

“I’m not going there,’’ Weld said when asked via telephone about Gingrich’s line of attack. “I love everybody. I love Mitt. I love Newt. I love everybody.’’

Gingrich has done more than replay an old video clip to tar Romney as a Massachusetts moderate. The former speaker of the US House lists Romney’s purported sins against the Republican Party. He says Romney voted for the “most liberal Democrat’’ in the 1992 presidential primary, former senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. He says Romney “repudiated Reagan’’ in his 1994 US Senate run, when he “ran to the left’’ of Edward M. Kennedy.

“I’m drawing a very sharp contrast with Governor Romney, who is a Massachusetts moderate, and I am a Reagan conservative,’’ Gingrich said yesterday in Manchester. “I think he’d have a harder time distinguishing himself in a debate. Take RomneyCare and ObamaCare - I’ll let you try to sort that one out. Take raising taxes in Massachusetts, including a 400 percent increase in the tax on guns, and compare that with Obama.’’

Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul shot back: “This is simply a case of Speaker Gingrich lashing out at Governor Romney in a desperate attempt to save his floundering campaign.’’

But some analysts suggest that Romney may be vulnerable to the criticism. In the Granite State, his campaign has not deployed popular moderate Republicans such as Weld, who endorsed President Obama as a candidate in 2008 but who said yesterday he may join Romney this evening in New Hampshire. Nor did Romney enlist Senator Scott Brown on the campaign trail.

The Massachusetts moderate label reminds the party faithful that the GOP has not nominated a candidate from the Northeast since Thomas E. Dewey in 1948, said Todd Domke, a Massachusetts GOP political analyst and coauthor of “The Conservative’s Dictionary.’’

“They are using it for shorthand that he cannot be trusted on taxes, judicial appointments, and other issues,’’ Domke said. “It’s a fair, responsible term, because that’s what Romney called himself. When conservatives coalesce around one conservative candidate, then the idea of Romney being the Massachusetts moderate’’ could become a real issue.

Republicans in Massachusetts yesterday defended their moderate tradition. Brian P. Lees, a former state senator from East Longmeadow, described himself as a prochoice, pro-gay-marriage, fiscal conservative, and a proud moderate.

“It was the brand of the Republican Party in Massachusetts for a long time,’’ said Lees, clerk magistrate for Hampden Superior Court. “[Gringrich] tried to make it sound like something bad, when people in Massachusetts have been very successful. Look at Scott Brown.’’

Richard Tisei, who served 10 terms as a state senator from Wakefield, has not endorsed any presidential candidate, but he rejected the notion that Romney was a Massachusetts moderate.

“In Massachusetts, he governed as a conservative,’’ said Tisei, a gay Republican hoping to unseat US Representative John Tierney. “I’m sure in Utah a conservative is probably a bit further to the right on the scale.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.

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