Massachusetts, a solidly blue state that has been mostly ignored in this presidential election, became the rope Thursday in a tug of war between President Obama and Mitt Romney.
The two campaigns staged back-to-back events at the State House, with boisterous supporters trading chants, and both claimed favorable messages from a television appearance by Governor Deval Patrick.
Massachusetts is Romney’s adopted home, and the presumptive GOP nominee governed the state from 2003 to 2007. But when Obama senior strategist David Axelrod visited Beacon Hill to denounce what he described as Romney’s failed gubernatorial record, he opened his remarks by declaring “it is great to be in Massachusetts, Obama country!”
Indeed, the president leads Romney in the Bay State and is expected to win it comfortably in November.
But on Thursday morning, Romney backers preempted the Axelrod press conference with one of their own, featuring nine Republican state lawmakers who cast Romney’s Massachusetts years in a more favorable light.
“President Obama doesn’t have anything positive to say about his own record,” said House minority leader Bradley H. Jones Jr., a North Reading Republican. “So he’s going to go out and vilify his opponent.”
Jones praised Romney for lowering unemployment, which was approaching 6 percent when Romney became governor but dipped to 4.7 percent by the time he left office. He also credited Romney with closing a $2 billion budget gap without raising taxes.
About 90 minutes later, Axelrod dismissed the latter accomplishment as a “shell game,” saying that Romney “raised fees more than any other governor in the nation, this no-tax governor.”
Romney supporters — many of them young — stuck around for the Axelrod press conference and yelled throughout his address and others delivered by Massachusetts Democrats. When Axelrod fielded reporters’ questions, he had to bend over to hear the journalists who approached the podium — which bore a placard promoting a website, RomneyEconomics.com, that is critical of the GOP candidate’s policies.
Romney backers hoisted signs that read “Obama isn’t working” and sparred verbally with the Obama faction stationed on the State House steps. One Romney enthusiast wore a metallic-silver space suit costume and helmet, and held a poster that said “Obama’s debt: astronomical.”
Shouting to be heard, Axelrod teased the demonstrators: “These may be the only voters, right here, for Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.”
On the Internet, the Obama and Romney camps engaged in another Massachusetts-themed duel. With a little selective editing, Patrick appeared to help both Obama and Romney in the same interview Thursday.
Shortly after Patrick appeared on MSNBC, the Romney campaign began circulating a 30-second clip from a roughly 7-minute interview, in which Patrick defended Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney ran for 15 years.
“Bain is a perfectly fine company,” said Patrick, who is a cochairman of Obama’s reelection campaign. “They’ve got a role in the private economy. And I’ve got a lot of friends there, and [so do people] on both sides of the aisle. I don’t think Bain is the point.”
The Obama campaign has produced ads criticizing Romney and Bain Capital. The point of the ads, Obama and spokesmen have said, is not to judge the virtues of Romney’s business practices but to argue that experience in private equity does not qualify him to be president.
Patrick said the Obama campaign’s Bain strategy “has been distorted in some of the public discussion.” But the ads have clearly characterized Romney as a villain, with featured workers calling him a “vampire,” a “job destroyer,” and “the opposite of Robin Hood.”
After the Patrick interview, the Obama campaign directed reporters to its own, 50-second clip, in which Patrick accused Romney of breaking campaign promises from his 2002 run for governor.
“He sold to the people of Massachusetts when he was running for governor the same lines he’s trying to sell to the United States, and it just didn’t happen that way,” Patrick said. “He told us he would be about creating more jobs. We were 47th out of 50 in job creation during his time in office.”
The low ranking was repeated several times at the State House and was a central theme of a 4-minute Web video released Thursday.
“Romney economics doesn’t work,” John Barrett III, a Democrat and former mayor of North Adams, said in the new ad. “It didn’t work in Massachusetts, and it’s not going to work in Washington.”
Barrett also spoke at the press conference, where he and Axelrod continued the Obama campaign’s effort to shift the political discourse toward Romney’s Massachusetts record. Axelrod noted that on the campaign trail, Romney promotes his business experience over his gubernatorial experience.
“There’s good reason for that,” Axelrod said. “After selling himself to Massachusetts as an economic savior, the Massachusetts record was alarmingly weak.”