Governor Deval Patrick yesterday kicked off a two-year period in which he will both try to sell himself and President Obama to the American people, and his first true taste of the national stage was positive.
He was polite, as always, as he and three fellow governors held a roundtable discussion on ABC's "This Week." He sold Massachusetts, as the Democrat promised to do while responding to critics of his upcoming travels.
But he also found himself reticent by comparison with a rising Republican star, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, extending all the way to a trick-but-not-unfathomable question from segment host Jake Tapper.
He asked Patrick if Mitt Romney, his predecessor and a likely candidate for the presidency in 2012, did a good job during his four years as governor of Massachusetts.
"I think one of the best things he did was to be the co-author of our health care reform, which is model for national health care reform," said Patrick.
It was the political equivalent of a Bronx cheer for Romney, who is facing criticism from many Republicans, especially conservatives, for what they have come to dub "Romneycare" with endearment equal to that which they hold for "Obamacare."
Patrick added: “What these folks did in Massachusetts is, frankly, the same thing that the Congress did, which is take on access (to health insurance) first and come to cost control next. ... And just as we have, I think, shown the nation how to provide universal care through a public-private model, I think we can crack the code on health care costs.”
When Tapper asked again if Romney had done a good job, the governor again refused to go negative. Instead, he stuck with a kill-him-with-kindness approach that has already been employed by both Obama and his former press secretary, Robert Gibbs.
"On that one issue, I think he deserves a lot of credit,” said Patrick.
Haley had no qualms about taking the bait, which let her execute the surrogate playbook with aplomb.
It's easy to see why the 39-year-old Haley, who became the nation's youngest sitting governor when she was sworn in last month, is already being talked about as a potential vice presidential running mate.
The first rule as a surrogate is that it's not about you as much as it is the person or viewpoint you're supposed to promote.
When Tapper asked Haley if fellow Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin was right to propose eliminating the collective bargaining rights of most public workers to help balance his state's budget, she was decisive and clear.
"He is trying to trim his budget," said Haley. "He is trying to make the tough decisions that the people of Wisconsin wanted him to do. What I think is a shame is the fact that you got Democrat senators who represent the people of Wisconsin and are so cowardly that they left their own state. I think that’s an absolute slate of who should be thrown out of office as soon as they get back."
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat like Patrick, kept referring to his days in the restaurant industry as he preached understanding and urged management and labor and the senators who have fled to neighboring Ilinois to work collectively.
Patrick, too, was conciliatory, offering a mini-commercial for Massachusetts as he talked about his efforts to overhaul public pay and benefits, and to make fundamental changes such as consolidating the transportation system.
"All of this with labor at the table, so there’s another way to approach that," he said in reference to Walker's tactic.
When Tapper asked Patrick if it was "cowardly" for the Democrats to have fled, which they did to block the Republican Party from passing Walker's legislation, the governor showed the limits of his hubris.
“I try to make a practice of just governing Massachusetts and not trying to govern other states," he said.
Haley again was unambiguous in underscoring her party's view.
"Let's be clear," the leader of South Carolina said in discussing the developments in Wisconsin. "This was cowardly. This was irresponsible. They left their state when their state needed them the most because they don’t want to take a vote. Whether they are for it or against it, you come back and represent the people of your state."
Haley also proved deft after watching a clip of another potential 2012 candidate, Sarah Palin, wholeheartedly endorsing her gubernatorial candidacy last year. That prompted the question, would she return the favor should Palin run for the White House next year?
"I want all of the candidates to come to South Carolina," she said. "I want the people of South Carolina to get to see them the way I get to know them. I want them to campaign hard, and then when the right time comes, I will endorse. But there is no one that I feel like I owe at this time."
The exchanges contrasted compassionate and analytical with tart and visceral not unlike the 2008 campaign between Obama and GOP nominee John McCain.
Patrick has always cast himself as above the partisan fray, but his election campaigns have shown his willingness to get down and dirty as needed. He gave a reminder last week, when he said his travels would promote the state, while Romney's at the end of his gubernatorial term turned the state into a "laughingstock."
Right now, though, with his own re-election campaign just completed and Obama's still to begin, Patrick is in a more soulful period as he prepares to embark on a book tour to sell his memoir, "A Reason to Believe."
Some speculate the book is the requisite prelude to some other campaign, but Patrick has said no and decisively ruled out one race yesterday. When Tapper moved to the subject of the 2012 White House race, the governor cut him off to volunteer, in jest, "I am not running."
But Obama is, and Romney is likely to, and so yesterday was as much about raising Patrick's profile as he attempts to sell his book as it was about introducing him to a national audience as he prepares to become the president's pit bull.
Patrick brings much to the table, in that regard. Not only did he replace Romney as governor, but he implemented the health care law the former governor signed into law.
Republicans will surely dismiss Patrick's comments as partisan, but many undecided voters may find special credibility in his analysis of the similarities and differences between the state health care law Romney signed and the federal bill Obama enacted, much to the chagrin of Romney's fellow Republicans.
Patrick is also extremely comfortable in his own skin, something that always seems to be a challenge for Romney. Should Romney get his party's presidential nomination, Patrick will have already laid out for Obama the road map for attacking him. Obama should draw confidence from not only his fellow Democrat's words, but also his manner.
Patrick is beginning this journey with an aggressive schedule in Washington. Over the weekend, he attended to his official duties at the National Governors Association, while also promoting himself.
He held a fundraiser, and did a series of interviews with reporters from the National Journal, Politico, and other publications.
He also did his stint on "This Week," and a top adviser did little to conceal the endgame.
“It’s nice he's going on the Sunday-morning talk shows," communications director Brendan Ryan said. "And I think it will help him as he works as a surrogate for Obama the next two years.”
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.