Massachusetts, bastion of the left. Right?

On car bumpers across Massachusetts, Mary Ann Marshall still sees reminders of the moment her home state's political identity changed overnight. "Nixon 49, McGovern 1: We were right," the stickers read.

Many residents who voted in the 1972 presidential election view the state's lone dissent against Richard Nixon with some pride. After all, Nixon's second term brought the debacle of Watergate and the continuing quagmire of Vietnam. But ever since the Bay State went for antiwar candidate George McGovern, it has been viewed as a bastion of liberalism, a sort of Soviet Republic with brownstones and funny brogues.

"This is a 32-year-old false charge that continues to stick," says Ms. Marshall, a Democratic consultant.

Yet Massachusetts is hardly Cuba with a lot of chowda. It is far more mainstream ideologically than people think - and has been becoming more conservative in recent years. Demographic shifts, combined with changing political attitudes, reveal a state with broad currents of political and social conservatism - even in the heart of the Democratic party.

This is a state that has elected three consecutive GOP governors, voted twice for Ronald Reagan, and is facing a concerted push to reinstitute the death penalty. Even the old "taxachusetts" label may be an anachronism: The state that had the second-highest taxes in the nation in 1979 (behind New York) is now ranked 13th. In 2000, voters came within five percentage points of passing a referendum that would have abolished the state income tax altogether.

"Cambridge notwithstanding, Massachusetts is hardly more liberal than the rest of America," says Robert Reich, a labor secretary under President Clinton, who is often viewed as one of the state's resident liberals.

The Bay State's image is important. If local son John Kerry were to become the Democratic nominee, Republicans would certainly try to affix the "Massachusetts liberal" pin to his lapel. Some have already been doing so. They will also play up his close ties to Massachusetts' other senator, Edward Kennedy, who many Republicans like to portray as a sort of Maoist with big earlobes.

And why not: In 1988, the first President Bush had considerable success pigeonholing his opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, as a liberal by stressing his record and roots in the Bay State as well as by portraying his advisers as a "Harvard boutique."

Now, with the state legislature this week taking up the gay marriage issue, the second Bush White House hopes to be able to use the nationwide culture war to its advantage in the November election if Kerry is the nominee. Even though the legislature is not likely to approve gay marriages, the fact that the state's highest court did is something the Republicans will try to use against Kerry in more conservative states.

TO be sure, ideologically, Massachusetts is still hardly Arizona. Of the 10 congressmen and two senators representing the state in Washington, none is Republican. Among the 200 seats in the state legislature, Republicans hold 29. The last time a Republican served as Boston's mayor, America's biggest stars were the Marx brothers. Overall, Massachusetts has three times as many registered Demo crats as Republicans.

"To some extent, if Republicans' efforts to win state legislatures were a 100-yard dash, [the other states' parties] would be starting on the 75-yard line, and we'd still be in the starting gate," says Dominick Ianno, head of the Massachusetts Republican Party.

Democrats dominate the state's political institutions. But that does not mean the party is of one liberal mind.

Democrats first made political inroads in the state at the beginning of the 20th century, as Boston's Irish political machine enlisted blue-collar roustabouts and union workers. To this day, most of the state's urban Democrats are doggedly liberal on economic policy, but take a different tack on moral issues.

"Many politicians here are strongly socially conservative," says US Rep. Barney Frank (D). "On abortion, gay rights, gambling, and even censorship they have strict views."

The soldiers who returned from World War II and moved to the suburbs also joined ranks with the Democrats. But over time they have tended to frown on high taxes and big social welfare programs, while supporting liberal reforms like abortion rights.

That demographic grew considerably the past decade, say experts, as high-tech companies and financial-service firms moved in, bringing with them residents who value fiscal prudence.

"You see more white-collar residents resisting high taxes, and you see old-time city Democrats with some views on social issues that are more conservative than most of the country," says Robert David Sullivan, associate editor of CommonWealth, a public-policy magazine in Boston.

True, redoubts of unabashed liberalism still exist - Cambridge, Amherst, Northampton - names some conservatives utter in the same class as "Gomorrah."

In such places, says writer Tracy Kidder, even the police departments are laid-back and open-minded. "I met a criminal in Northampton who once said to me that the police are like gentlemen," says Mr. Kidder, whose lives in Northampton and has written a book about its culture.

But even there, a social layer persists that flouts the liberal chic. "There's a whole indigenous group here that are kind of like the classic Irish cop."

The state's political traditions and icons might even work to Kerry's advantage, argue some Democrats. Appreciation of one of the nation's first proponents of big government, John Adams, is at a highpoint. And few Democrats believe the legacy of John Kennedy will hurt him.

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