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The Boston Globe

Politics

As Scott Brown kicks off reelection bid, challenge is to show substance equals style

Josh Reynolds/AP

Senator Scott Brown spoke last month with supporter Jo MacDonald of Salem during a visit to Mul's Diner in South Boston. He kicks off his reelection campaign tonight in Worcester.

In the end, elections often come down to image and personality as much as, if not more than, policies or party.

Look no further than 2004, when Republican George W. Bush won reelection over Democrat John Kerry despite a raging debate about the Iraq War and a consensus that the Massachusetts senator beat the incumbent president in three straight debates.

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Many voters simply ended up preferring the back-slapping Bush over the more reserved Kerry, part of the reason he won.

Should Mitt Romney emerge as this year’s Republican presidential nominee, it’s a lesson that may cause him to shudder as he surveys a general election matchup against President Obama.

The Democrat’s campaign staff is already trying to brand Romney as “weird.”

The lesson is not lost on Senator Scott Brown, for whom the strength of image and the power of personality already permeate every fiber of his political identity and reelection campaign.

It kicks off today - the second anniversary of his upset win in the special election to replace the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

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Brown rose from the state Senate to the US Senate in part through the barncoat-wearing, pickup-driving image he crafted for himself two years ago. And he has continued to underscore the importance of image to his political identity ever since, including in the web video he released yesterday to preview his speech tonight at Mechanics Hall in Worcester.

“My whole life has been about beating the odds, plain and simple,” he said as a montage of childhood photos displayed on the screen behind him. “I didn’t have a lot of breaks growing up, probably not unlike many of you. I came from a broken home and moved around a lot as a kid. Times were not easy, but you know what, I had the love of a mother who struggled to provide for me and my sister. I also had the help of some wonderful mentors I met along the way.”

Brown then transitions to his tenure in the Massachusetts National Guard - including photos of him in his fatigues as he returned last August from Afghanistan. He requested the deployment, his first to a combat zone in over 30 years of military service.

“I joined the Army National Guard so I could give something back to the state and country that has given me so much,” he says.

The senator also embraces a “60 Minutes” report on the book he wrote about his life, including the line in which correspondent Lesley Stahl says, “He’s turned out to be unpredictably independent, and beholden to no one.”

It was an endorsement of precisely the image Brown has tried to embody and convey: an atypical politician who puts people over party.

Critics can snicker, but his words and deeds have led to polls showing him if not the most popular politician in the state, then one of its most popular.

And that aura will be a big challenge for his most likely challenger next year, Elizabeth Warren, who has eclipsed the rest of the Democratic field in money, organization, and institutional and popular support.

Republicans are already trying to brand her as an out-of-touch elitist, an image she perpetuated when she claimed credit for laying the intellectual foundation of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Yet the reciprocal challenge for Brown is to prove he is as much about substance as he is about style.

He has tried to prove as much with legislation to ban congressional insider trading, or by proposing to offset extended unemployment benefits with budget cuts. He has worked to display a bipartisan streak by, for example, joining the president in calling for an end to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on military service by openly gay men and women.

But Brown’s schedule is also replete with activities and appearances aimed at reinforcing his down-to-earth persona.

Just yesterday, he visited Peabody to deliver a flag flown over the Capitol to honor the memory of James Rice, a firefighter who recently died in the line of duty.

The announcement video also included footage of Brown, basketball in hand, speaking to a group of black children standing on a basketball court.

And his campaign committee has also released videos with Christmas and Thanksgiving greetings from him and his family, as well as a video of Brown visiting Dorchester with former Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn.

That one was shot the same day Brown and Flynn visited the Eire Pub together.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.

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