HOLDEN -- The door of The Bagel Inn on Main Street swings open. Heads swivel as a thin man in a black suit and red tie strides in. He has the posture of a general. His eyes are intense. A millimeter of gray fuzz covers half his skull.
``Good morning, chief," Reed Hillman says, extending a large hand to the chief of the Holden police as someone fetches him a cup of tea.
He parks himself in a wooden chair -- knees wide apart, toes turned out -- and launches into a rapid-fire recounting of his long career with the Massachusetts State Police. ``I served at eight different barracks, from Framingham to Athol," he says, as a cluster of local officials gathers around.
Reed V. Hillman seems to connect with most people he meets. As Kerry Healey's running mate, he has been sent out to do just that. Until now, the Republican gubernatorial ticket has been largely defined by Healey, a wealthy, polished academic from Beverly who has served as Mitt Romney's lieutenant at the State House for four years. But this summer, while Healey spends most days in her official State House role, Hillman is touring the state in a leased Ford Taurus, performing the age-old running mate's role of ticket-balancer and attack dog.
He has taken on the ambitious mission of visiting each of the state's 351 cities and towns. Seventy-nine have been checked off so far. He has eaten breakfast with Gloucester fishermen and dinner with Pittsfield businessmen. He has ridden the ferry to Martha's Vineyard and slid down the brass pole in the Taunton fire station. He has visited the flea market in Brimfield, the Greek festival in Worcester, and the apple blossom festival in Ware. He has munched peanut butter cookies in Winchendon and slurped a chocolate frappe in Wakefield.
``There's never any down time on my campaign," Hillman said on the way to a campaign stop in central Massachusetts. ``I'll be out all day, every day, through the close of the polls on Election Day."
He tries to visit ``the big three" in every community -- town hall, the police station, and the fire station -- plus a coffee shop or two. After a while, he admits, they start to blend together.
``Sometimes it feels like that Bill Murray movie, `Groundhog Day,' " he said with a laugh. ``But it's an amazing diversity of people."
He also has embraced his role as attack dog and Healey defender. Appearing on the conservative radio talk show host Howie Carr's show in April, Hillman fired back when Carr uttered the nickname he reserves for Healey, Muffy.
``At the end of the day, Howie, you and I are both going to be voting for Healey on Nov. 7," Hillman said, rendering the host silent for a full 2 seconds.
Earlier this week, he stood before a scrum of local reporters in a scraggly park in downtown Worcester -- where the mayor is Tim Murray, the candidate for lieutenant governor endorsed by the state Democratic Party -- to reprimand the Legislature for passing a bill that would legalize over-the-counter sales of hypodermic needles.
``Imagine your children not only coming upon dirty needles in the park, but standing in line next to a heroin or crack addict in a drugstore," he said.
Hillman is the first to tell you he's not a fancy guy. The eldest of four children born to working-class parents, Hillman was raised in Newton on powdered milk and macaroni and cheese. He worked his way through Babson College at a Wonder Bread factory. (Stacking Twinkies, he likes to joke, was good training for dealing with lawmakers.)
He met his wife, Thérèse, a schoolteacher, when she was a waitress at Friendly's; on their honeymoon in Maine, their big splurge was a 2-pound lobster, washed down with Pepsi brought from home.
He now earns one of the largest pensions on the state payroll, $105,000 a year, but he is as frugal as they come. He prefers diners to restaurants and bought his beloved bicycle for $100 at a toy store. His wife buys his suits at TJ Maxx, and she hems the cuffs herself.
``There are no tailors in my life," he said.
Though he graduated from Suffolk Law School before he joined the State Police, Hillman sounds like a homicide detective. When he talks public safety, houses become ``dwellings" and cars become ``vehicles."
Capping a 25-year career with the State Police, Hillman served as colonel for his last three years. He retired in 1999 and won a special election for state representative. He served most of three terms, championing legislation to toughen laws against drunken driving, among other public safety bills.
He decided not to run again in 2004. The next year, he was one of Romney's five nominees for US marshal for Massachusetts.
The Bagel Inn was the first of many stops in Holden (town number 75) on a six-hour tour of small towns in Central Massachusetts on Monday.
In nearby Rutland, he talked recycling and nurse staffing with customers at Heavy Evie's Happy Kitchen. He admired a Colonial-era military uniform at the Historical Society, where elderly ladies clipping century-old magazines admired his bearing. ``Always at attention," he agreed. ``That's 25 years of training."
In Hubbardston, he told police that he was on familiar turf, saying, ``This was part of my patrol area when I was at the Athol barracks." He spoke with a selectman about education-funding reform. At the fire station, he asked a pair of paramedics how many ``defibs" (defibrillators) the town had and congratulated them on their work.
In Westminster, he had his picture taken in front of the famous old Westminster Cracker Factory, then headed to a pizza joint where he shook hands with a quartet of masons, waving off their warnings that their hands were dirty. ``That's backbreaking work," he said.
Then it was on to Sterling, where he toured the Town Hall, shook hands in yet another coffee shop, and posed for a snapshot in town center with the lamb statue (a tribute to the ``Mary Had a Little Lamb" lyric, which some say was coined by a local boy about his schoolmate, Mary Sawyer, and her pet lamb). Along the way, he met an elderly supporter wearing a Romney-Healey baseball cap.
``You've got to paint that over," he said with a grin.