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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Joan Vennochi

Why do Mass. politicians wither on national stage?

What is it about Massachusetts politicians who run for president?

Here, they are intelligent people with reasonable, if lofty, ambitions. On the national stage, they turn into caricatures. Whatever their politics, they become arrogant, stiffly coiffed candidates who lack the common touch.

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Republican Mitt Romney is the latest example of a Bay State-launched presidential contender with a serious people problem. He hasn’t lost yet, but if history is a guide, he could, just like Democrats Michael Dukakis and John Kerry.

Is it something in the local air, or maybe in the ivory towers that nurtured them?

The “Outside the Beltway” blog recently posted news that Kerry would play Romney in debate practice for President Obama under this headline: “Stiff, Awkward, Rich Guy from Massachusetts To Stand In For Stiff, Awkward, Rich Guy from Massachusetts in Debate Prep.” The item ended with this quip: “Word is that Michael Dukakis will provide Kerry with charisma advice.”

A New York Daily News writer derided Kerry as “an Ivy League-educated Massachusetts politician with permahair — perfect qualifications” to play Romney.

Romney is currently under attack for essentially writing off half the country as victims and freeloaders who unapologetically feed off everyone else. But long before voters got a look at the full Romney via Mother Jones, the former Massachusetts governor had trouble connecting with ordinary people.

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Ann Romney’s mission at the Republican National Convention was to help voters see her husband as a human being capable of love, laughter, and compassion. She did the best she could with the material she had. But she was working against campaign sound bites which reinforced the image of a fabulously wealthy candidate who enjoyed firing people, wasn’t worried about the poor, and joked about being unemployed. Supporters may rightly complain those snippets were taken out of context; the problem is that they were there to take.

As Democrats, Dukakis and Kerry embraced policies aimed at the 47 percent that Romney recently cast as entitled moochers. Ideologically, Dukakis and Kerry felt the pain of the disadvantaged and wanted to help them. Yet they weren’t loved back. Both Democrats were beaten by rich Republicans whose last name was Bush. It shows that empathy is relative to your opponent and has little to do with personal wealth.

Dukakis is a frugal man with an unpretentious lifestyle. But this son of Greek immigrants accepted his party’s nomination to the pounding chords of Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” for a key reason. As one New York Times analysis reported it back then, it was an effort to pump him up and help him shed his image as “aloof, cerebral, and technocratic.”

It would take more than a theme song to change Dukakis. His penchant for intellectualizing issues rather than reacting to them in a visceral way undercut his ability to connect with voters. Asked by debate questioner Bernard Shaw if Kitty Dukakis, the candidate’s wife, were raped and murdered, “would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis dispassionately replied, “No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all my life.” Election over.

The parallels between Romney and Kerry are even stronger because of shared characteristics of personal wealth and public stiffness. During the 2004 election season, Kerry often faced headlines like this one in the Globe: “Old questions arise on patrician roots.” The story noted his status as a descendant of the Winthrop and Forbes families and his prep school education. Romney, the son of a governor, also has a prep-school background that is fodder for unflattering stories.

Like Romney, Kerry has a history of making awkward jokes. His efforts to appeal to hunters — “Can I get me a hunting license here?” — were mocked. So was Romney’s assertion that “I’m not a big-game hunter. I’ve always been a rodent and rabbit hunter. Small varmints, if you will.”

In Massachusetts, these candidates were more comfortable in their own skin. (In Romney’s case, Bay Staters soured on him because he became something other than the moderate he said he was when he ran for governor.)

They did not have to convince voters they were “one of us.” They just had to convince voters they were “for us.”

Beyond these borders, a different standard seems to apply.

Take note, Governor Patrick.

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

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