DAVID GREENE, HOST:
From now until November, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will be emphasizing their differences. We're going to spend some time in the next few weeks, looking at the similarities. The men's lives coincide in a striking number of ways. Both attended Harvard. They've both been heavily influenced by their respective churches. Each even descended from polygamists.
Today, we're starting a series called Parallel Lives. And we begin with the fact that each man lost his first political campaign. Tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we'll hear about Barack Obama's losing race, first this morning, here's NPR's Ari Shapiro with Mitt Romney's story.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In retrospect, Mitt Romney's first campaign sounds like political suicide: a Republican in deep-blue Massachusetts, challenging liberal lion Ted Kennedy for his Senate seat. Mike Murphy has been a longtime friend of Romney's and advised him in later campaigns.
MIKE MURPHY: Normally, they didn't have anybody who would run against Kennedy. And I give Mitt a lot of credit for stepping up on what was a very lonely fight.
SHAPIRO: In 1994, Kennedy appeared to be a lion in winter, says political scientist Paul Watanabe of the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
PAUL WATANABE: He was down and out. He was a person who had just experienced, really, the low point of his career.
SHAPIRO: And Romney was a fresh face - an up-and-comer who had seen huge success in the business world. Scott Ferson was Kennedy's press secretary during the Romney fight.
SCOTT FERSON: I think, in '94, he felt that Senator Kennedy's time had ended, and it was his time.
SHAPIRO: Romney was a new face in the Republican Party, too. He changed his affiliation from independent in 1993. So he didn't have the party infrastructure to build a political machine comparable to Kennedy's.
Still, he put a couple million dollars of his own money in the campaign fund. And by September, some polls showed the men tied. Then came an epic October debate that would define this election and reverberate through many subsequent ones.
WATANABE: I've been watching elections for several decades of Massachusetts politics. That's probably one of the most memorable nights I've had.
SHAPIRO: Professor Watanabe remembers a moment before the cameras and the audience were in place; the candidates were doing microphone checks.
WATANABE: And Ted Kennedy showed up. And, you know, his shirttail was out. He looked, frankly, to me, horrible. He looked like he wasn't ready for this.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good evening and welcome...
SHAPIRO: When the debate began, something changed. The clean-cut Romney came across as a novice, recalls Republican strategist Murphy.
MURPHY: As a new candidate, he got up there - Ted Kennedy was the old pro - and really got roughed up in the debate.
SHAPIRO: On the stage in Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, the lion seemed to re-emerge. Kennedy hammered Romney on health care finances and on abortion.
SENATOR TED KENNEDY: I have supported the Roe v. Wade. I am pro-choice. My opponent is multiple choice.
SHAPIRO: Romney replied with an answer that has dogged him ever since.
MITT ROMNEY: My mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that or be a multiple choice, thank you very much.
SHAPIRO: Later as governor, Romney changed his position. He now calls himself pro-life.
Romney got creamed in that debate. And when Murphy joined Romney's gubernatorial campaign in 2002, Romney was still absorbing those lessons.
MURPHY: So a focus of our campaign for governor was to spend the time to prep and get comfortable with that format. And by most observers, he won the debates decisively in the gubernatorial campaign. That's one of the reasons that he won.
SHAPIRO: The Senate race against Kennedy was not a clash of ideologies. In a state where only 13 percent of voters called themselves Republicans, Romney worked hard to portray himself as a moderate.
ROMNEY: Look, I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush.
SHAPIRO: Instead of policy differences, Romney focused on personality differences. The Kennedy camp was far more aggressive. Attack ads from that time foreshadow a vulnerability that Romney's opponents use to this day. Kennedy painted Romney as a cold-blooded capitalist willing to ruin people's lives for money.
(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He's cut our wages to put money back into his pocket.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You're not creating jobs. You're taking them away from us.
SHAPIRO: Striking factory workers from Indiana added to that portrayal. The workers came to Massachusetts and protested in front of Romney's company, Bain Capital, which owned the factory that laid-off workers. Romney was on leave from Bain and had nothing to do with the decision, but the attacks worked. He dropped in the polls.
Still, Romney held fire, says former Kennedy aide Ferson.
FERSON: And he ran a very clean campaign. You know, he didn't go out of his way to talk about Senator Kennedy's personal issues.
SHAPIRO: Ferson thinks Romney's loss left him believing that nice guys finish last.
FERSON: And I think he's clearly gotten over this notion that: I run the risk that people won't like me. You know, in a lot of respects, I think he sometimes goes out of his way to carpet-bomb an opponent.
SHAPIRO: Romney put that lesson a different way in an interview years later.
ROMNEY: If fired upon, you return fire.
SHAPIRO: And here's the other lesson that he says he learned from that race.
ROMNEY: And that is, if you don't define yourself, your opponent will do that for you.
SHAPIRO: In the end, the contest wasn't even close. Romney took 41 percent of the vote to Kennedy's 58 percent. Romney returned to Bain and then went on to run the Utah Winter Olympics.
Today on the stump, he says he has spent very little of his life in politics. And that's true - but it wasn't for lack of trying.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News.
GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.