“I think he understands you craft your own image, and that’s what he’s done,” Ms. O’Brien said of her old foe. “And if you look at his favorable-unfavorable here in Massachusetts, it’s highly unfavorable, because people feel like he didn’t do the job. They feel like he didn’t have Massachusetts’ interest at heart.”
In response, Romney campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom suggested that Ms. O’Brien’s criticisms stemmed more from the resentment of losing than anything else. “There is no wine more mind-altering than that made from sour grapes,” he said, “and it sounds like Shannon O’Brien’s been drinking liberally from the cup.”
As Ms. O’Brien likes to point out, though, some of Mr. Romney’s current G.O.P. foes—Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee, for instance—sometimes sound a little like she once did as they warn Republicans to be wary of Mr. Romney’s newly strident social conservatism.
“It’s the very, very rudimentary back-of-the-brain stuff that people remember,” she theorized. “They don’t always process it at the front of their brain, but in the back of their brain is: Good-looking, passionate about the fact that he’s pro-life, passionate about the fact that he’s anti-tax. Meanwhile, when he ran against me he was pro-choice and he refused to sign a no-new-taxes pledge.”
But Ms. O’Brien also suggested that Mr. Romney has weaknesses.
For one, “he was clumsy, and he still is a little clumsy when you throw him a question he hasn’t answered or practiced before.” This tendency was on display when Mr. Romney recently told the mother of a soldier in Iraq that his own sons were serving the country—by helping with his campaign.
Another potential vulnerability, according to Ms. O’Brien: “Quite often he can come across as kind of smarmy when he’s trying to project warmth.” Ms. O’Brien recalled the low point of Mr. Romney’s 2002 campaign: critical and popular revulsion to a series of Romney ads that painted a picture of an Ozzie-and-Harriet domestic existence. By the time the ads were pulled in early October 2002, Ms. O’Brien had opened a lead of nearly 10 points.
Ms. O’Brien believes that if Mrs. Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, she will be able to make somewhat more of Mr. Romney’s equivocations because his flip-flops during his presidential campaign have been more blatant and public than they were back in Massachusetts.
“Now he’s got a track record,” Ms. O’Brien said.
No one knows what kind of governor Shannon O’Brien would have made. But surely it’s crossed more than a few minds in Massachusetts: If we’d listened to her five years ago, no one would be talking about Mitt Romney today.