Candidates' Makeovers Surprise Hometown Voters

Almost every week, voters in New Mexico make concerned phone calls to a small office on the campus of the University of Iowa.

They're worried about the low poll numbers in the state for their favorite son, Gov. Bill Richardson, and they want political science professor Bruce Gronbeck to explain the discrepancy between the presidential candidate's popularity at home and in Iowa.

"They know him and like him and they don't understand why he's not doing better," Gronbeck said about Richardson, who consistently polls fourth in Iowa. "Well, there's a reason for that. Richardson spent the first few months going around Iowa giving us his resume -- 'Look how good I am' -- and that turned some people off."

Richardson, along with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and other presidential candidates, have all changed their images in both subtle and significant ways as they make a national run for the White House.

That makeover is an essential step for politicians better known in their home districts than on the national stage. But when local and national perceptions clash, that transformation can lead to unexpected results.

Romney has worked hard in the last several months to emphasize his credentials as a social conservative, touting his anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage and tax-cutting stances.

And many voters in Iowa seem convinced.

"Romney is seen by Iowans as a true social conservative," said Brian Dumas, a political consultant who worked for former candidate Tommy Thompson. "He's overcome the question mark about him being the governor of a liberal state. In the beginning, people were suspicious of that but he seems to have overcome that. People like him when they meet him."

That transformation comes as a surprise to some voters in Massachusetts, where Romney was governor from 2003 to 2007, who recall him running for office as a moderate Republican.

"He was certainly not elected as a social conservative," said Michael J. Widmer, the president of the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation. "His public positions on abortion and gay marriage were nuanced and he appealed to the nonideological suburban voters."

Widmer is also skeptical of Romney's claims to be a tax-cutting fiscal conservative. "He's talked about reducing taxes. I don't know what he's referring to. He made a couple of tiny tax reductions, but, in general, taxes were not reduced here and he proposed tax increases on corporation and higher fees. He talks about a dramatic turnaround in Massachusetts -- our economy never rebounded while he was here and it still hasn't."

Other voters in Massachusetts are more sympathetic of Romney's changing stances. "He was more accepting of pro-choice because Massachusetts is a liberal state and I suppose that he has to bend a little," said retired printing company owner Harold Gurwitz. "I think his integrity is totally superb and I think he had the benefit of the citizenry at heart when he was governor."

Giuliani has also worked to transform his image, accentuating his role as "America's Mayor," the calm leader who steadied New York City in the wake of Sept. 11. He has also shifted from the left to the center on certain issues like abortion, guns and immigration.

"People respect Giuliani because of his national stature as a leader," said Andy Brack, the publisher of State House Report, a syndicated weekly column that appears in South Carolina publications. "Otherwise, they don't know much about him. People don't pay much attention until the last minute, like a kid before an exam."

Giuliani's security credentials seem to have distinguished him among voters in South Carolina and Iowa. "In Iowa, they see Giuliani as someone who has the capacity of being a strong leader," said Dumas. "They also see him as a solid conservative on taxes and spending but he's not as good as Romney at overcoming objections on social issues, namely abortion."

Back in New York City, where Giuliani ruled as a two-term mayor, voters have a much more complicated perception of the candidate. "On 9/10, most of the city was ready to move on and was eager for a new mayor," said Rob Polner, the author of "America's Mayor, America's President?: The Strange Career of Rudy Giuliani." "New Yorkers know that he craves confrontation and if there's too much quiet, he's uncomfortable and looks around to throw a punch. Out in Iowa, they don't know about that congenital snarl because he's been wearing that Republican primary smile."

Polner said that Giuliani took liberal positions that would appeal to the city's voters. "When he was mayor, there were three Roe v. Wade anniversary celebrations in the Blue Room at City Hall. He was a major plus for people fighting assault weapons. And he was very immigrant-friendly, going to court to prevent denial of benefits to illegal immigrants. Those are the moderate positions that he's trying to run away from now."

Obama's long-distance makeover seems more subtle, a slight shift to the center since he won his Senate seat in 2004. At the same time, he's bolstered his anti-war credentials while on the national stage. But the local perceptions back in Chicago seem to match the national perceptions pretty well.

In South Carolina and Iowa, he's won support through a grassroots campaign based on meetings in barbershops and small towns, a tactic he perfected while running for state Senate in Illinois in 1997.

Although he generates a lot of positive feelings among voters in New Hampshire, Obama still hasn't captured the progressive niche vote won by Howard Dean in the 2004 primary campaign. "He hasn't made himself into that model insurgent candidate who grabs the hearts of those progressive voters," said Dante Scala, a longtime political observer at the University of New Hampshire. "Obama is not playing the role of the firebrand insurgent that you saw in 2004."

Back in Chicago, Obama is still perceived as a liberal dynamo. "As a lawmaker, he was quite liberal," said David Mendell, a Chicago Tribune reporter and the author of "Obama: From Promise to Power." "He certainly was a guy who believed in government solutions to the ills of society. He tilted to the center when he ran for Senate but he's still perceived as a pretty tried-and-true liberal."

Don Rose, a longtime political consultant in Chicago, said that voters nationwide don't know enough about Obama's reputation as a tough fighter in politics. "People assume that he won the Senate in a walkaway against Alan Keyes," Roses said. "He won a very difficult five-way primary and he beat the machine in that race. And he actually won with an absolute majority, which had not been done in decades."