The state Republican Party is taking aim at a new opponent in the fall legislative elections: Boston.
In mass mailings and on roadway signs, Republicans from Cape Cod to the Interstate 495 beltway and beyond are trying to sway suburban and rural voters by accusing Democratic lawmakers of sending too many state dollars to Boston -- and depriving their own districts.
The strategy -- a central tenet of the most vigorous Republican challenge to the Democrats' legislative dominance in more than a decade -- has outraged Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, a Democrat, who calls the tactic divisive. He vows to campaign for any Democratic lawmaker targeted by the Republicans.
''Divisive politics never works; it's a poor message that the Republican Party is putting out," said Menino, arguing that Boston provides 26 percent of the state's tax base with less than 10 percent of the population.
Menino charged that the Republicans were grasping for a campaign theme now that longtime House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran has stepped down and left the GOP without a well-known target.
''He's not there anymore, so what's their message? Whip Boston," Menino said. ''Well, anybody who understands what the state economy and state government is all about, it's about Boston. Without Boston, the economy suffers."
Republican strategists and candidates say the strategy works because suburban voters are upset the Legislature is dominated by Boston lawmakers who occupy most leadership positions and set the agenda. The theme has come up in several closely-fought suburban races, they say.
Alex Dunn, Governor Mitt Romney's political director and architect of the Republicans' legislative campaign, said the strategy was developed after Romney heard the same refrain from voters around the state. But Dunn said the governor had little or nothing to do with making sure the us-vs.-them theme was woven into Republican campaign literature. He added that Romney had no intention of fomenting a war with Menino, either.
''Mayor Menino's job is to represent Boston; the governor's job is to represent the whole state, and he's gone out around the state. This is a message he's heard loud and clear," Dunn said.
In Central Massachusetts, Republican Senate candidate David Shnaider of Sterling has placed four signs along Route 62 that read: ''The Money Stays/Inside Route 128/Shnaider Will Fight For/Our Part Of The State." In an ad, his campaign pokes fun at ''Beacon Hill Insiders" who steer money to Boston districts and ignore cities and towns outside of Route 128, ''the end of the world."
''Without question, voters are talking to me about this," said Shnaider, running for the seat held by Senator Robert A. Antonioni, Democrat of Leominster. ''My opponent votes with [legislative] leadership. . . . They have a Boston-centric view."
Mass mailings sent by the state GOP strike a similar chord. ''Time after time, Susan Fargo has put the interests of Boston before us," reads one flier targeting Senator Susan C. Fargo, Democrat of Lincoln. The mailing details Fargo's support of state budgets during the fiscal crisis that cut school money for her district by 17.5 percent, and Boston's by 2.5 percent.
In the race for an open Senate seat, Republican candidate Robi Blute of Shrewsbury derides her opponent, Edward M. Augustus Jr., as ''Boston Ed" because, she says, his real focus is the capital, not his district -- even though Augustus is a Worcester native.
According to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a nonpartisan, business-backed watchdog group, Boston is not even close to being the top recipient in state funding for schools and local government, on a per-capita basis.
Cameron Huff, a senior research associate at MTF, said that the Hub ranked 34th out of 351 cities and towns in terms of total state aid per capita in fiscal 2005. (Lawrence, with the state's lowest property value per capita and second-lowest income per capita, is the leader in state aid, Huff said.)
But Dunn says aid alone does not reflect the entire picture. He points to the Boston Municipal Court, which receives far more money per case than the rest of the state's municipal courts. Saying the Boston courts are bloated by Democratic patronage, Romney tried to merge them with the rest of the court system in 2003, but the Democrats in the Legislature not only thwarted him, but they increased spending for the BMC. There are no Republicans representing Boston in the Legislature, and only several GOP candidates have stepped forward to challenge Democrats in the city. Asked why, Dunn said city incumbents have done a good job for their constituents. ''It's the legislators outside Suffolk County who can't seem to stand up to them," Dunn said.
Still, Dunn criticized Robert E. Travaglini in particular for giving the appearance that his district, as well as new speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi's, will receive more than their share of spending. He was referring to comments Travaglini made recently: ''Well, if I lived in East Boston or the North End, I wouldn't move right now . . . There is the potential for additional attention."
Ann Dufresne, Travaglini's spokeswoman, said the comment was intended to be a joke, and noted that his full statement made it clear that he has the interests of the entire state at heart.
Travaglini has ''made a point of going to the localities to see firsthand what the local needs are," Dufresne said. ''This is a guy who cares about the whole state, and his Senate members."
Dufresne also criticized Romney for vetoing money for some suburban and rural Bay State communities in a supplemental spending bill passed in September.
But Senate Republican leader Brian P. Lees of East Longmeadow said such criticism misses the point. While Romney must do what he thinks is best for the entire state, he said, individual lawmakers must attempt to do what is best for their own districts, and not a far-flung metropolis.
''Clearly, many elected officials have forgotten that they work for the people in their district first," Lees said.
Lees dismissed the idea that Democratic lawmakers have gone along with spending aimed at Boston in order to keep on the good side of powerful legislative leaders such as Finneran and Travaglini.
The state's legislative leaders ''are strong, but they understand what principle is, what respect is, and what your district is," Lees said. ''If you stand up for putting your district first, none of the leadership will ever fault you for that."
Raphael Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.