WASHINGTON — The moment, Democrats say, was telling. Republican Mitt Romney, fresh from his triumphant run as Olympics organizer in Utah, had just announced his entry into the Massachusetts governor's race. But at his first press conference, when a reporter asked if he knew what "MCAS" stands for referring to the state's controversial standardized testing system Mr. Romney had to confess he didn't.
"He had been out of the state and ... was unaware of the immensity of education reform," charges Jane Lane, a spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party. "It smacks of carpetbagging."
In Romney's case, the accusation may be unfair aside from his three years in Park City, Utah, he has lived in Massachusetts for three decades but there's no question it's a potent political gibe. Indeed, with the Bay State scheduled to begin hearings on whether the former venture capitalist meets the residency requirement for candidates, charges of carpetbagging are playing out in a number of key races across the country.
The phenomenon reflects the growing number of high-profile candidates returning home to run for office after long stints elsewhere. Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, gubernatorial candidate Bill Richardson in New Mexico, and House candidate Stephanie Herseth in South Dakota have all been attacked as carpetbaggers. Opponents accuse them of being out of touch with local concerns or worse, opportunists using the state office as a stepping stone.
Yet at a time when many Americans routinely move around the country, some question whether it matters where a candidate comes from. Certainly, in Senate races, voters are often willing to overlook a lack of local ties, partly because they see senators as national figures. The most prominent recent example, Hillary Clinton, was elected New York's senator two years ago, despite never having lived there.
But in governors' races, an intimate knowledge of local issues is far more critical so carpetbagging charges may resonate powerfully. "The more local the race, the more likely voters are to take all that seriously," says Ted Arrington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
The term "carpetbagger" dates back to the Reconstruction Era, when northerners flooded the South often bringing only what they could fit in carpetbags. In politics, it's long been used as a derogatory term, playing on regional suspicions of outsiders.
But while there's no data on how charges impact campaigns, analysts say that historically, scores of politicians have held office in states other than their own.
During the 19th century, most senators of newly organized western states were born back East "and nobody necessarily called them carpetbaggers," says Senate Historian Richard Baker. "It comes part and parcel with a fairly mobile society."
Some analysts hypothesize that the "outsider" label is less effective in states accustomed to a regular influx of newcomers. In addition to Senator Clinton, New York has elected a number of nonnatives to the Senate, including Robert Kennedy, who hailed from Massachusetts, and James Buckley, from Connecticut.
This attitude may be spreading to the traditionally more parochial South. Analysts say the carpetbagger label isn't sticking to Mrs. Dole, despite the fact that she spent four decades in Washington. "North Carolinians are pretty sophisticated folks," says Professor Arrington. "They want good representation, and if they think she can provide it, that issue just doesn't go very far."
Still, it's not a welcome charge. "It is a liability," says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University.
At issue in Romney's case is whether he meets the state's seven-year residency requirement for gubernatorial candidates. From 1999 to 2001, he listed Utah as his primary residence on tax forms.
Romney should have an easier time than most in fighting the label, say analysts, since he has spent most of his adult life in Massachusetts. Indeed, some say the strategy could backfire on Democrats, making them seem petty in trying to disqualify their opponent on a technicality.
Most analysts expect the state ballot commission to side with Romney, since he did maintain a residence in Belmont. If it were to rule against him, it would effectively hand the election to the Democrats, as the GOP has no other viable candidates. (And the Romney camp has implied that Democratic candidate Robert Reich may have a similar problem though Mr. Reich says he sold his Washington home in 1995).
The flap has led some to question whether the residency requirement for governors, which dates back to colonial times, still makes sense. Massachusetts' 1780 constitution, in an effort to block British appointees, stipulated that candidates for governor be Christian, with substantial property in the commonwealth, and have lived there for seven years before running. The first two requirements were later repealed, but the third remained.
"It's really an antiquated piece of constitutional history," says Professor Berry. "There's no reason at all why somebody who's been living out of state for a while should not be able to come back and run for office."