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JOAN VENNOCHI

Bill Weld’s lesson for GOP — learn to dance with Democrats

He delivered a pro-choice speech to a national Republican convention and was booed by delegates. He offered to vouch for Hillary Clinton’s integrity when she was under attack as first lady. He officiated at a wedding that joined together two gay men who served in his administration.

And, in 2008, he endorsed Barack Obama, calling him a “once-in-a-lifetime candidate who will transform our politics and restore America’s standing in the world.”

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That’s quirky Republican Bill Weld. Yet he still wins respectful mention as a potential Republican candidate in Massachusetts from his party, and from some on the other side. Indeed, when Weld warbled a silly song to a roomful of Democrats at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, his appearance was taken as a sign that he’s seriously thinking about another run for office.

Weld knows that to win in Massachusetts, Republicans have to sing and dance with Democrats. As governor, he did a lot of that — just ask former Senate President Bill Bulger, who enjoyed Weld’s ditties at St. Patrick’s Day breakfasts past, including one about his brother Whitey.

Yet even as the old master shows them how it’s done, Bay State Republicans are determined to ignore the lesson.

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Gabriel Gomez, a former Navy SEAL and private equity investor who is running for Senate, is being hammered by fellow Republicans for asking Governor Deval Patrick to appoint him to the Senate after the resignation of John Kerry. In a letter to Patrick, Gomez described himself as a moderate Republican and noted that he backed Obama in 2008. He also said he would support Obama’s gun control and immigration agenda. While his actual position on both issues needs clarification, Republican activists are unhappy with any sign of possible cooperation with Democrats. Two of the three co-chairs of Women for Gomez quit. That’s a virtual stampede away from him, given the thin ranks of the Bay State’s GOP.

The reaction to Gomez is curious in Massachusetts, where a moderate Republican is the only one with any chance to win.

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Mitt Romney became governor because he sold himself to voters as a fiscal conservative who was relatively moderate on social issues. When he tilted right to run for president, his own party didn’t believe anyone from Massachusetts could be severely conservative, as Romney described himself, on anything.

Republican Scott Brown won a special Senate election because voters perceived him as moderate enough to succeed Ted Kennedy, an ultra-liberal. He was doing a good job defining himself as a “Scott Brown Republican” until Democrat Elizabeth Warren came along and tied him to the national Republican agenda. That simply isn’t a winning platform around here.

Back in 1996, Weld tried to unseat Kerry by running against “crime, welfare, and taxes.” Running to the right wasn’t a winning strategy for him, either.

Primary politics are different than general-election politics. Activists on both sides demand fealty on core issues. But Massachusetts voters tilt left, especially on social issues. It’s general election death once a Republican candidate is defined as too far to the right. That’s political reality.

Gomez is a political neophyte with an uphill climb. Still, for anyone paying attention to the three-man race for the GOP nomination, his letter to Patrick sets him apart as the one candidate interested in a bipartisan approach to the business of the Senate. Of course, there is self-interest at stake when he promotes himself that way. But as a general election strategy, it has more appeal than a promise to rigidly embrace the right.

In Massachusetts, it doesn’t take much to be cast that way. In this state, only 11 percent of the voters are registered as Republicans. In the last presidential contest, Obama won over 60 percent of the vote and he was running against a former Massachusetts governor.

To be successful, a Republican candidate must be able to reach across party lines. What’s left of the Massachusetts GOP either doesn’t get it, or has decided to make a loser’s stand.

Weld knew what it took to win when he first ran for governor, and he knows it now. That’s why he’s serenading Democrats. In Massachusetts, it’s called keeping your options open.

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