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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Joan Vennochi

Brown — the master of political theater

Associated Press

Scott Brown takes a break at Mul’s Diner in Boston in December.

TALK ABOUT an identity crisis.

Scott Brown famously won election as the Republican senator from Massachusetts who promised to block President Obama’s controversial health care reform initiative. Now he’s running for reelection as the Republican senator who supports Obama’s equally controversial recess appointment.

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Brown is edging left. Or, is he straddling center?

He calls his recent political positioning a sign of independence. Democrats who are committed to defeating him call it expedience, as if expedience never figures in their own political positioning.

As he battles to keep his Senate seat, Brown is running toward exactly what Mitt Romney is running away from - the label of “Massachusetts moderate.’’ To Newt Gingrich, it may be a curse. But it’s the only proven path to victory for Bay State Republicans. As Romney knows, and Brown is learning, achieving it requires some very fancy footwork. Sometimes, it can trip a guy up.

One minute, Brown is signing Grover Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge; the next minute, he’s leaving the door open to raising tax rates in an overhaul of the federal tax system.

As a candidate, Brown received about $59,000 from the National Rifle Association. Last fall, he opposed legislation pushed by the NRA, which would allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons anywhere in the country.

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Last month, Brown chastised fellow Republicans for “ugly partisanship’’ when they blocked Obama’s effort to extend the payroll tax cut, apparently forgetting his own pledge to block ObamaCare. He denied his newfound commitment to crossing the aisle had anything to do with his reelection, saying he was just “very frustrated with the political theater.’’

Yet, supporting Obama’s recess appointment of Ohio attorney general Robert Cordray makes Brown the master of political theater. What does he really believe? Who knows?

Conservative bloggers whacked him for supporting Cordray, Obama’s pick to head the consumer Financial Protection Board - the job that was supposed to go to Elizabeth Warren, Brown’s likely opponent. Republicans consider Obama’s move unconstitutional. The Senate wasn’t technically in recess when the appointment was made. On the campaign trail, Romney slammed it as “Chicago-style politics at its worst.’’ Brown tried to have it both ways, saying he didn’t like the process, but believed Cordray was the right person for the job. Now, he will take the whacks and his party will take the betrayal because they want to keep the seat last held by Ted Kennedy.

Brown’s $12.8 million war chest suggests that national Republicans are sticking with him. Early polls suggest he faces a tough fight against Warren. That’s why Brown is calling himself the underdog, despite the power that comes with incumbency and money.

His reelection battle is in its infancy. As it proceeds, Brown won’t be the only one facing a fascinating identity crisis. Massachusetts will, too. Do voters want an all-Democratic delegation, which votes in virtual lockstep on every major issue? Or, do they prefer a little more diversity and a little less predictability in Washington? Is Camelot done, or does enough sentiment remain to return a Democrat to a Kennedy’s seat, and perhaps send a new Kennedy to Congress?

State party operatives, who are firmly in Warren’s corner, send out outraged missives every time Brown shifts a vote to their side. They sourly predict that Brown will shift sharply to the right if he wins a full term. Yet some Democrats, like Mayor Thomas M. Menino and former Senate President Robert Travaglini, seem to send out signals of quiet support for Brown. Last fall, Menino was openly skeptical of Warren’s candidacy, and Travaglini hosted Brown on a tour of his East Boston neighborhood.

Brown’s nearly mythic sweep to victory two years ago came after a fast and furious special-election showdown. Despite Brown’s pledge to be the 41st vote against ObamaCare, his win was more about personality than issues. Today, voters know a little more about Brown than when he was just a regular guy in a barn coat and pickup truck. Or do they? Brown wrote a book that revealed much about his personal life, and less about his political value system. Right now, his message is mixed, which is just what he thinks he wants.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.

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