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In ’02, Mitt Romney capitalized on debates

Mitt Romney sharpened his attacks on Shannon O’Brien.

Charles Krupa/AP file 2002

Mitt Romney sharpened his attacks on Shannon O’Brien.

WASHINGTON — About six weeks before a crucial election, and shortly after he had secured the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney was trailing badly. Voters had unfavorable views of him. They didn’t think he cared for people like them. Women overwhelmingly favored his opponent.

The year was 2002.

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There are many ways in which Romney’s flagging 2012 presidential campaign is different from his gubernatorial race of a decade ago. He’s fighting on multiple fronts, in multiple states, with an electoral map to victory that veers from difficult to daunting. And he’s facing an incumbent president with ample political skills and resources.

Yet, the parallels can be instructive.

Several weeks after Romney, with no primary opponent, officially became the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 2002, a late September poll showed he had not only lost his lead but had slipped six points behind his Democratic opponent, state Treasurer Shannon O’Brien.

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She was dominating among women — leading 48 percent to 30 percent among such voters in the survey — and his favorability numbers had dropped significantly from February, when he returned to Massachusetts after running the Olympic Games in Utah and announced he was running for governor.

When asked which candidate most cares about people like them, only 18 percent said Romney.

“It was hard to sort of get some momentum going,” said Charley Manning, a Romney adviser during that campaign. “She came out of the box really strong.”

Shortly after the poll came out, Romney huddled with his aides during a barbecue at his Belmont home, and they decided to shift tactics. He would drop the gentlemanly role he had assumed, one that prompted some voters to see him as a smug, programmed front-runner.

The campaign would drop the feel-good, family-focused ads in favor of sharper, more combative ones criticizing O’Brien’s management of the state treasury. Romney would start delivering attack lines himself, rather than leaving the dirty work to surrogates.

“We knew we needed to use debates and other methods to get our message out in a crystal-clear way,” said Mike Murphy, who was one of Romney’s chief strategists. “We needed to turn the boat a little bit, so to speak. Mitt was totally on board and we hit our stride.”

Within weeks, the polls began to shift. Voters responded to Romney’s negative ads, the most memorable of which portrayed O’Brien as a hapless, sleeping basset hound instead of a watchdog on Beacon Hill. The ad — humorous, yet cutting — is still talked about by political observers in Massachusetts.

To try to get voters to connect with him, Romney spent time working several types of jobs during what the campaign called “work days.” He worked as a garbage man on Beacon Hill, sold sausages at Fenway Park, and fixed cars. They were all thinly veiled photo ops designed to convince people that his wealth wasn’t an issue, but those who helped run his campaign say such images had an impact.

That’s not to say there weren’t struggles. O’Brien called on Romney to release his income taxes, and he refused. He had awkward moments on the campaign trail, though that didn’t become a dominant story line.

With about three weeks to go before the vote, O’Brien ran an ad about Bain Capital, resurrecting attacks on Romney’s role downsizing the paper company Ampad Inc. and asking voters, “Now Romney wants us to trust him with our jobs and our economy?”

“Mitt and I had talked about it a million times after the Kennedy campaign,” Manning said, referring to the attack ads Senator Edward Kennedy used so successfully against Romney in 1994. “We said, if we’re ever in a campaign again and they go after Bain Capital, we’re going to go really hard back at them.”

Romney responded with an ad that criticized O’Brien for her tenure at a failed health care company. “O’Brien is attacking Mitt Romney for a company he never managed, just invested in,” the ad began. “Now learn about O’Brien’s business record.”

In effectively mitigating attacks on his business record, Romney made O’Brien out to be a political creature who would be part of a “Gang of Three,” with Democrats controlling the House, Senate, and governor’s office.

“The question he was able to raise, very effectively, was, ‘Do you want to give a monopoly to the Democrats?’ ” said Dwight Robson, O’Brien’s campaign manager. “We only made a couple of mistakes, but they were big.’’

One of those mistakes, Robson said, was a “flop” in the final debate, when O’Brien had an attempt at humor that fell flat.

When moderator Tim Russert asked why she would support a 16-year-old girl being able to get an abortion without parental consent when the same teen would be unable to legally get a tattoo in Massachusetts, O’Brien joked, “Would you like to see my tattoo?”

Romney, casting himself as the type of moderate that more-liberal voters should be willing to consider, did well in the three one-on-one debates (though he did lose his temper at one point, telling O’Brien that her interruptions and accusations were “unbecoming.”)

By the time the final poll was released, the race was a dead heat. Women voters in particular moved toward Romney, helping him reduce an 18-percentage point gender gap to 8.

He won by almost 5 percentage points.

The shifts that Romney made in a compressed time period were easier when he was in Massachusetts, particularly because he had not been subject to presidential-level attack ads and scrutiny.

“A state campaign with one set of voters and one major media market is kind of like a Jet Ski: It’s very maneuverable and easy to turn,” said Rob Gray, an adviser during Romney’s 2002 race. “A presidential campaign, where you’re worried about a dozen battleground states and a dozen different media markets, is more like an ocean liner, where your course has been set pretty far in advance and it’s tricky to make quick turns.”

Still, a decade later, as the former Massachusetts governor returned to the Bay State last weekend to raise money and prepare for Wednesday’s debate, he may be able to take heart, even as many are ready to write his political obituary: In a previous race — in fact, in the only race he’s ever won — he was down in the polls before using debates, a sharper message, and an ad campaign to dominate on election day.

“He’s good in a crisis,” Murphy said. “When things are going tough he’s calm and he’s remarkably clearheaded. . . . I wouldn’t write him off.”

maviser@globe.com
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