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From corner office to collision course

Patrick, Romney trade jabs as 2012 race looms

In 2006, Governor Mitt Romney and his newly elected successor, Deval Patrick, worked together on the transition. In 2006, Governor Mitt Romney and his newly elected successor, Deval Patrick, worked together on the transition. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff/ File)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / March 28, 2011

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They clasped hands for only a moment, two very different men passing each other at the threshold of the governor’s office.

“We are looking forward to a great administration,’’ Mitt Romney told Deval Patrick on Jan. 3, 2007, the day before they transferred power.

“You can count on it,’’ Patrick said.

And then they parted.

Romney walked out of the State House on a red carpet and jumped into the next phase of his career, his quest to become president. Patrick strode into the office to begin his journey as a first-term governor determined to undo many of Romney’s policies.

Since that handshake, Patrick and Romney have met on only a few brief occasions — when Romney returned to his old office to sit for his official portrait and again at the portrait’s unveiling in 2009, when Patrick praised his predecessor’s “sense of service.’’

Now, after four years of largely ignoring each other, they are crossing paths again. The Democratic governor and his Republican predecessor are heading onto the national stage, eyeing each other warily and trading a few initial barbs as they do the talk-show circuit, promote their books, and stake out opposing territory in the 2012 presidential race.

Patrick, who has been tapped to be a major spokesman for President Obama’s reelection campaign, is working closely with the president’s political team to deliver backhanded compliments to Romney for his work on universal health care in Massachusetts, a law reviled by Republican voters.

“One of the best things he did was to be the coauthor of our health care reform, which has been a model for national health care reform,’’ Patrick said last month on ABC’s “This Week,’’ adding that Romney “deserves a lot of credit’’ for signing the law in 2006.

Days earlier, on his monthly radio show, Patrick took a swipe at Romney’s frequent travels out of state as governor, saying Romney made Massachusetts a “laughingstock’’ as he courted conservative voters. In doing so, Patrick also inflated the number of days Romney had spent out of state.

Romney, heeding the lessons of modern politics, is hitting back hard. Responding to the “laughingstock’’ jab, Romney’s spokesman called Patrick the “purest essence’’ of hypocrisy for criticizing Romney’s travels while preparing for his own 10-day trade mission to Israel and England.

In his book, “No Apology,’’ Romney blames Patrick for driving up the cost of his health care law, asserting that Patrick gave the poor free insurance when they should have been charged nominal premiums.

The testy exchanges foreshadow the extent to which both men will be forced to confront each other as their national ambitions intertwine and collide in the weeks and months ahead.

Romney, who is laying the groundwork for a second presidential run, is traveling the country, ramping up his attacks on Obama, Patrick’s friend and political soul mate. Patrick, meanwhile, has opened a federal political action committee to help him travel the country, working to reelect Obama, in part by needling Romney.

David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser who helped run Patrick’s first campaign for governor, said he expects Patrick will be a big player in the president’s campaign.

“Certainly, he can attest to what was done during the Romney years, and what wasn’t, and I think he can speak to the health care experience and what went on in the state’s economy during those years,’’ Axelrod said.

“There isn’t anybody in politics in the country who is closer to the president — both personally close, and close in terms of his world view — than Governor Patrick,’’ Axelrod said. “And there is no one better to have out on the hustings making the case.’’

He denied there is a concerted effort to knock Romney.

But Romney advisers say the attention is flattering, an indication he is the presumptive front-runner in a fluid GOP field.

“The White House certainly knows who they don’t want to run against, and I think it’s very apparent they don’t want to run against Governor Romney,’’ said Tom Rath, a senior Romney adviser in New Hampshire.

Romney, in a recent speech in New Hampshire, joked that Democrats are spending “more time talking about me and Massachusetts health care than Entertainment Tonight spends talking about Charlie Sheen.’’

Rath said Patrick’s jabs will not sway voters in Republican battleground states. “If the Democratic governor of Massachusetts wants to go down and tell the people of South Carolina how to vote, I’m sure they will listen with interest,’’ he said with a chuckle.

Tensions between Romney and Patrick date to February 2005 when Patrick, then a little-known former Justice Department official, began edging toward a run for governor and accused Romney of bowing to the “right wing of the Republican Party’’ as he moved toward a run for president.

Romney returned fire by accusing Patrick of plotting to increase taxes. Romney, of course, never faced Patrick in a race. He ran for president in 2008, and Patrick defeated Romney’s lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, in 2006. After that victory, Romney invited Patrick for a chat in his office, and the two worked cooperatively on the transition.

During the next four years, Romney traveled extensively, raising his profile, while Patrick set about reversing his predecessor’s policies — canceling spending cuts, undoing an immigration order, and reinstating an affirmative action policy that Romney had rescinded. But the two remained rivals at arm’s length.

Now that Patrick is delving into national politics and more directly confronting Romney, the risks for him may be lower because he has denied any ambition for national office and says he will complete his second term, which ends in 2015.

But Romney’s spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, warned that if Patrick continues to dog Romney, it could backfire.

“The particular problem that Deval Patrick faces is a weak economy,’’ Fehrnstrom said. “People without jobs — and there are a lot of them — will resent the fact he seems more focused on politics than on putting the state back to work.’’

Axelrod said Patrick will inevitably be called upon by reporters and others to challenge Romney’s claims about his record. And Patrick, by opening a federal PAC and tweaking Romney on health care, has made it clear he is happy to play the role of presidential partisan.

“I don’t think there’s any personal animosity, but Deval has probably the same view of Romney that I have — he’d be a terrible president,’’ said former governor Michael S. Dukakis.

Patrick spoke coyly of his role targeting Romney. “I like Mitt Romney,’’ he said. “We have not spent a lot of time together personally, but whenever I have, I have always appreciated him. We don’t agree on everything.’’

And with that, he launched into praise for Romney’s role in the state’s health care law.

“If I were Governor Romney — and I’m not Governor Romney,’’ Patrick said, “I would wrap my arms around that success, because that has been good for the people of the Commonwealth.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.