By Samuel P. Jacobs
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Reuters) - Who knows Mitt Romney best? Massachusetts Democrats were front and center at the party's national convention Tuesday night to present their up-close version of the state's former governor.
While Massachusetts has been a source of heartache for the Democrats - generating two recent failed presidential candidates, losing Edward Kennedy's long-held U.S. Senate seat to a Republican and becoming a punch line for liberalism run amuck - Democrats are granting its delegation a starring role at this year's convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The state's elected officials were placed out front to hit the Republican presidential nominee hard on his record as governor of the state, a part of Romney's biography he talks about far less than his business resume.
On Tuesday night, congressional candidate Joseph Kennedy III was on the list of speakers, followed by the state's current governor, Deval Patrick.
Patrick, U.S. Senator John Kerry and Vicki Kennedy, the widow of Edward Kennedy, had seats beside Vice President Joseph Biden in his private box, a campaign official said. The evening included a video tribute to Ted Kennedy, who died in August 2009, which featured clips of the elder statesmen sparring with a young Romney during their 1994 Senate race.
The Massachusetts Democrats have a twofold strategy: first, criticize the achievements that Romney does trumpet, principally his education and economic initiatives.
Second, praise to the skies Romney's signature legislative achievement, health care reform, enacted in 2006 to extend insurance coverage in Massachusetts and a model for President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, passed four years later.
Romney's health care bill is unpopular with Republicans nationwide. He mentions it infrequently on the stump, and has pledged to repeal the Obama law it inspired.
IN PRAISE OF ROMNEY'S HEALTHCARE BILL
Earlier Tuesday, the Massachusetts Democratic Party and three health insurance providers sponsored a panel at a downtown Charlotte law firm to tout Romney's health care initiative and argue that Obama's plan will secure similar success.
"I'm very, very proud of what we have accomplished in Massachusetts. I think, by the way, Mitt Romney is too," Governor Patrick, an active Obama ally, told the crowd.
"Not anymore!" one audience member answered back.
Patrick described Romney's gubernatorial portrait, which now hangs in the Massachusetts State House. Romney selected two elements to appear in the painting, Patrick said, a picture of his wife Ann Romney and a copy of the health care law.
"There's no doubt in my mind that if the Affordable Care Act based, as you know, on health care reform in Massachusetts were polling better nationally, he would wrap his arms around it," Patrick said.
Others picked up the kill-him-with-kindness approach.
Philip Johnston, a former state party chair, extolled the achievements that Romney made possible.
"Isn't it a wonderful thing that we can say in our state of Massachusetts every child has access to high quality, affordable health care?" Johnston asked.
Not that the Democrats believe those policies would extend nationwide under a President Romney.
"We've got a caring government here in Massachusetts," Johnston said. "We won't have one if Mitt Romney is elected president."
On Wednesday, U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren will give a prominent address. Warren, a Harvard Law School professor, has been a fierce proponent of government's role in helping the economy, a theme picked up by Obama this summer.
Off the stage, Massachusetts delegates are more than happy to share their views of Romney's time leading their state.
"We know the truth about Mitt Romney because we lived with him for four years," said Deb Kozikowski, 57, vice chair of the state party. She mocked Romney for his many out-of-state excursions, sorties that helped him launch his 2008 presidential campaign.
"He's the guy who leaves before the party is over," Kozikowski said.
(Editing by Edward Tobin and Doina Chiacu)