Washington At this early stage of the presidential race, voters looking for ways to understand the candidates may be able to learn as much from the settings and sites of their debut events as from the words they speak.
This week, for example, Mitt Romney, whose two previous campaigns for public office took place in Massachusetts, where he has made his principal home for many years, announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination - in Dearborn, Mich.
Now, Romney has legitimate ties to Michigan; he grew up in the Detroit suburbs when his father, George Romney, was running American Motors, and he hung around in Lansing when his dad became governor.
But his choice of Dearborn over Boston as his launching pad had more to do with politics than nostalgia. Michigan will hold its primary ahead of Massachusetts in 2008, and Romney has been busy organizing the state for a challenge to Sen. John McCain, who won the primary in 2000.
And Romney has no motivation now to emphasize his ties to Massachusetts. After running a good but losing race against Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994, he came back several years later to defeat Shannon O'Brien for the governorship. Those contests established Romney's credentials as a formidable campaigner, but his single four-year term as governor did little to enhance his reputation. His main achievement - a precedent-setting plan to provide health insurance for every resident - is looking shaky, as its cost estimates have soared far above Romney's expectations. For the rest of his tenure, he fought regularly with the heavily Democratic Legislature, and his efforts to improve Republican strength in the state ended in failure.
Meantime, the races Romney ran in Massachusetts required him to take positions on abortion and gay rights which are nothing but an embarrassment now as he tries to rally conservative support for president.
As he has said, "if I had a plan to run for president, I would have planted my flag in Michigan," where conservatives such as John Engler have been elected as governor, rather than Massachusetts. Since he can't do that, the next best thing is to move his campaign to Michigan - and make his big announcement there.
Former Sen. John Edwards did very much the same thing, when he announced for the Democratic nomination in New Orleans, rather than in North Carolina, where he lives and where he won his only race for public office. The setting in the Ninth Ward, devastated by Katrina, emphasized Edwards' effort to put poverty back on the national agenda. But it also helped him erase what is now a burdensome political history. Edwards does not want to remind Democrats that he left the Senate voluntarily after just one term, and instead sought the 2004 presidential nomination. Failing in that quest, he became John Kerry's vice presidential running mate, and, after a lackluster campaign, ended up again on the losing side. None of that helps him as he tries for a fresh start in 2008; hence, New Orleans, not Raleigh, for the kickoff.
Several of the others have chosen impersonal settings to announce exploratory committees. McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee did the honors on NBC's "Meet the Press," and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson chose ABC's "This Week." Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton announced on the Web, thereby finessing the question of whether her home base is in the Chicago suburbs where she grew up; Arkansas, where she lived for the longest time as an adult; Washington, D.C., where she was first lady; or the New York suburbs where she moved when she ran for the Senate.
Others simply issued a news release saying they were starting their exploratory committees. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has yet to declare himself firmly in the race, but his closest thing to an announcement came last weekend at the California Republican convention - about as far from home as he can get.
Two Democrats have demonstrated they are comfortable in their own skins - and in familiar settings - by the way they staged their announcements. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack went back to his hometown in Iowa, where he had practiced law and served as mayor, to launch his long-shot bid. And Sen. Barack Obama announced in Springfield, where he had served in the Illinois Senate, before coming to the U.S. Senate a bit over two years ago.
History is on their side. The last two presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both announced their candidacies in the state capitals where they were serving. Home boys do best.