Romney, McCain give New Hampshire voters a clear choice

Published January 3, 2008 12:00 am

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NEWPORT, N.H. - This classic New England mill town on the Sugar River in winter is right out of a Norman Rockwell canvas, as were the prospective voters, some in checked shirts, an occasional Veteran of Foreign Wars cap, and couples with kids, who gathered in the 1886 Newport Opera House to hear John McCain the other day.

Warming up his audience, McCain made reference to all the other Arizonians with presidential ambitions in recent years, but that title, surely, goes to my native state next door. Massachusetts punches over its weight when it comes to presidential politics. Both our serving senators, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, ran in New Hampshire primaries hoping for the White House. So did Senator Paul Tsongas in 1992, and Governor Mike Dukakis in 1988.

It isn't just the politicians. Presidential campaigns, as my favorite political savant, Martin F. Nolan, puts it, "are full of advance men, fixers, pollsters, and apparatchiks'' from Massachusetts, all with their eyes on Washington.

Massachusetts may rank below Virginia and Ohio in the number of presidents born in the state, eight and seven respectively, but it's tied with New York for third place with four: two Adamses, John Kennedy and George H.W. Bush, although the latter grew up in Connecticut and practiced his politics in Texas.

Calvin Coolidge, although born in Vermont, used the governorship of Massachusetts as a catapult to the White House, so it should not be surprising to see Michigan-born Mitt Romney trying to follow suit.

Until recently, Massachusetts preferred Republican governors to counterbalance the overwhelmingly Democratic state Legislature. William Weld set the tone of the social liberal who promised to keep a tight hold on the public purse. Paul Cellucci promised more of the same, as did Jane Swift and then Romney.

The only thing wrong with that arrangement was that our Republican governors did not love us enough. Weld's geniality and popularity carried him to two terms, but he got bored and left to become, he hoped, Bill Clinton's ambassador to Mexico. Republican Senator Jesse Helms put paid to that defection, but then Cellucci, who never lost an election, also quit to become ambassador to Canada.

Romney finished his term, but may have spent less time in the State House than any governor in living memory. It was clear early on that he was running for president by the unseemly way he ran down his state when in right-wing circles, assiduously shucking the social liberalism of his gubernatorial campaign.

His famous flip-flops are now legend: the retreat from pro-choice, the anti-gay rhetoric, the hard line on immigration. My favorite, however, is his transmogrification from "I don't line up'' with the National Rifle Association to the longtime NRA advocate and lifelong hunter, both of which turned out to be very recent conversions.

When a Republican wag was asked if Romney's embrace of the gun cause would go down with right-wingers, he said: "Well, maybe Romney would have to go hunting with his best friend and shoot him in the face before we would accept him.''

My own theory is that Romney doesn't really care about any of these issues. He considers himself a top businessman who could be CEO of either General Motors, or Ford, or the United States, and it doesn't really matter to him if you have to say one thing selling a Ford, and quite another selling a Chevrolet.

New Hampshire usually favors candidates from next door. Dukakis, Kerry and Tsongas all won here, but Kennedy lost to Jimmy Carter in 1980.

It may come down to a question of character in the minds of New Hampshire voters. I heard Romney in one of the debates waffling on torture, only to be nailed by McCain, who sometimes takes stands that run contrary to his party's conventional wisdom.

One cannot help but admire McCain for his un-Romney-like consistency and integrity, even if he has made a couple of compromises to the GOP base. I think he is wrong about victory in Iraq, but I could see a President McCain having the moral authority to bring America out of Iraq when the time comes, and unite our country, much as Charles de Gaulle led France out of Algeria.

McCain's hair is silver now, and Romney's is not, and McCain is a little rumpled compared with the impeccably dressed and movie-star handsome Romney. Romney will remind some voters of the actor Tyrone Power, but McCain would have been played by Spencer Tracy.

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