And now, with another governor's race on the horizon, they're smitten with Mitt Romney - a fiscally conservative Republican, a Mormon who touts family values, a rich leveraged-buyout executive with no government experience who looks like a cross between Hugh Grant and Dudley Do-Right.
He's trying to sit on his poll lead while five Democrats try to out-liberal one another - among them, Clinton-era Labor Secretary Robert Reich and former national party chairman Steve Grossman. Romney has no GOP rival; Democrats won't produce a nominee until the Sept. 17 primary. Theoretically, the bloodied winner will be fit to fight the guy who saved the Winter Olympics from fiscal ruin.
The Democrats here are terrified that Massachusetts might be incubating a future national Republican leader. They're currently scrambling to raise big money for TV ads, because they rightfully fear that Romney will have the money to saturate the airwaves with upbeat imagery and tantalizing sound bites.
And that's why Romney was on Cape Cod the other night, to craft some spontaneity for his media adviser's cameras.
The adviser, Mike Murphy, explained that Romney would not be making any news. No surprise there, since Romney has doggedly avoided explaining how he would square his vow to erase the state's $2 billion budget deficit (twice the size of Pennsylvania's deficit) with his vow to slash taxes.
Murphy stood outside a Hyannis VFW hall and addressed his crowd of Republicans: "OK, we're going to have Mitt come out of his van, shake some hands. You should clap. One rule only - you can never look at the camera! Turn your face away! But I want a lot of enthusiasm!"
On cue, Romney emerged, sporting his killer grin, and a jaw that looks like a political caricature of a jaw. He worked the crowd ("How are you, my goodness, how are you, my goodness. . ."), and nobody seemed to mind when Murphy demanded that the scene be repeated two more times.
Romney soon delivered the sound bites: "Efficient, effective, and sound leadership," at the expense of "the chosen few" and "the special interests." Then, "I owe no favors. No one is putting me in office. I haven't spent years on Beacon Hill."
That's the template for gubernatorial victory in Massachusetts - an outsider profile, and disdain for Beacon Hill, where the State House is situated. It's a formula that has worked for the GOP since William Weld won "the corner office" in 1990. Only 13 percent of voters are registered Republicans, but in gubernatorial races the GOP has scored with the largest pool, the independents.
Mary Anne Marsh, a state Democratic strategist, lamented: "They have consistently figured out how to get from 13 percent to 51 percent on Election Day, while Democrats can't seem to get from 34 percent to 51 percent. I think Mitt Romney has a glass jaw, but if we nominate someone who is too liberal, we'll probably lose."
Avi Nelson, a state Republican activist since the '70s, agrees that Romney is potentially vulnerable, on two fronts: He seems to exude a sense of entitlement (having forced the unpopular incumbent governor, Jane Swift, to cede the nomination to him), and he risks being perceived as an out-of-touch mogul (having founded Bain Capital, a leveraged-buyout firm now worth $13 billion).
Nelson said: "You can't win if you're seen as arriving on a spaceship, and acting as if 'I'm ready to be anointed, folks.' And he doesn't look or sound like the guy next door. You don't want people to buy into the stereotypes by underscoring those stereotypes."
Romney stumbled in his only previous bid for office. In 1994, he put a scare into Sen. Edward M. Kennedy - until Kennedy unearthed evidence that an Indiana company had been forced to lay off hundreds of workers after Bain took it over.
But these days, the Democratic candidates aren't dogging Romney. They're too busy banging away at one another. The state party convention is this weekend, and each candidate needs at least 15 percent of the delegates to win a spot on the primary ballot.
While Romney floats above the fray, his rivals are down in the trenches, scuffling for the liberal label - a prerequisite for winning the primary. "In terms of November electability," Marsh said, "they're not helping themselves right now. They're feeling the pressure."
There's State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, the only woman in the race, whose husband is a top Boston lobbyist for special interests - including Enron. There's Tom Birmingham, the state Senate leader, who is burdened by the fact that he is the state Senate leader.
There's Reich, who has not been able to raise money despite his semi-celebrity status; Grossman, who has plenty of money (his own), but virtually no record of public service; and a former state senator, Warren Tolman, whose candidacy is expected to die this weekend.
At an inner-city forum the other night, they dueled hard for the allegiance of liberal activists. Reich said that 25 percent of his Labor hires were minorities. Birmingham shrugged, saying that 25 percent of his campaign staffers were minorities. Tolman, lacking stats, demonstrated his fluency in Spanish.
Reich said 50 percent of his hires were women. Birmingham couldn't top that, so he invited women in the audience to apply for campaign jobs. He also said that, to erase the state deficit, he would essentially raise taxes - the same kind of candor that killed Walter Mondale's 1984 presidential bid.
It is believed that O'Brien is probably the party's best hope, in part because of her gender; women typically are 55 percent of the state electorate. And Romney's personal qualms about abortion might play badly in the Boston suburbs.
But state Democrats need at least $4 million to stop Romney, a White House favorite (the other night, Vice President Cheney raised money for him). Right now Democrats have zilch, so this week they're going to Washington to pass the hat.
Paul Watanabe, a Boston political analyst, said: "In tough economic times, people look for a savior. A business background isn't necessarily a plus - not with Enron and the dot-coms - but Romney is identified with the Olympics, the perfect antidote to Sept. 11. People want an outsider who can be the bearer of good tidings.
"Mitt Romney is filling that role. At least for now."
Contact Dick Polman at 215-854-4430 or firstname.lastname@example.org.