FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -The billionaire owner of the New England Patriots stops to buy his morning coffee and feels ``a communal buzz'' among the customers. He continues to his office where pictures of him posing with President Clinton and the first President Bush hang on a wall.
Rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, Robert Kraft tries to relate to everyone.
``I care about the image of the team,'' he said. ``I want us to represent something that people can connect with and feel good about.''
That image has taken a hit during the Patriots unbeaten season - the Spygate controversy in their first game, a temporary restraining order against wide receiver Randy Moss this week - but Kraft is one of the most respected and influential NFL owners.
He's been instrumental in hammering out television deals and at times has put the good of the league above his own interests. He is considered close to commissioner Roger Goodell, who may have imposed his stiff penalty on the Patriots for illegal use of a camera in the opener to avoid hints of favoritism.
Kraft also remains tight with Goodell's successor, Paul Tagliabue. During an interview in his office Tuesday, the phone rang. Kraft picked it up. It was Tagliabue and they spoke for about five minutes.
In 1994, the 66-year-old native of Brookline, which borders Boston, bought a team that had won four playoff games in its first 34 years and played in a bare-bones stadium with metal benches, and turned it into a model franchise.
He opened Gillette Stadium in 2002 after building it with private money and today the team that plays in that showpiece is 17-0 and going for its fourth Super Bowl championship in seven years. It will get to that game with a win over the San Diego Chargers in Foxborough on Sunday.
``It's like running a business,'' said Kraft, owner of a company that trades in paper commodities and does business in more than 80 countries. ``You have to be a few steps ahead of your competition. You have to work harder. You have to plan more. You have to try to get good people.''
There's no doubt that his hiring of Bill Belichick as coach in 2000 was a very sound move. Yet Belichick has incurred enmity from opposing coaches, players and fans.
They criticized him after a Patriots video assistant was caught taping defensive signals being sent in from the New York Jets' sideline. His brief, unsmiling post-game handshakes with coaches are captured on camera.
He's been accused of running up the score, and his meetings with reporters are cliche-filled exercises in which he rarely smiles or reveals anything of substance.
``Bill is one part of the face of this team,'' Kraft said. ``There are many other faces. And, as a collage, I'm pretty proud about what this team is and how it conducts itself on and off the field, and no one's perfect.
``I think Bill is a man of substance. I don't pay him to kiss up to people in the media. I pay him to be respectful of the media but to win football games. That's his task.''
Kraft is respected by and respectful of other families that have owned teams for a long time - the Rooneys with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Maras with the New York Giants. He also is friendly with Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys.
There is also a connection between the owner and the fans.
When Kraft gets stuck in traffic, people notice him.
``They start honking and giving me the thumbs-up,'' Kraft said. ``They're enthused. They come with suggestions. They come over at a light and say something.''
Players find him equally approachable.
``I think he's made wonderful decisions for this organization ever since I've been here,'' said linebacker Tedy Bruschi, drafted by the Patriots in 1996. ``He's a guy that can really relate to players. Thanksgiving time you can ask him, `Is he a white-meat guy or a dark-meat guy.' He'll give you an answer.''
For the record, it's dark meat.
At one of the Patriots Super Bowl celebrations at City Hall Plaza in Boston, Kraft was goaded into a few dance steps with his much younger, more nimble players.
``He can sort of hang with us a little bit,'' Bruschi said with a smile.
Not surprising, considering Kraft loved watching players who preceded Bruschi with the Patriots from his seat in Section 217 in the old Schafer Stadium. He bought six season tickets in 1971, the year it opened, and often took his sons.
Then his view of the team expanded.
``In the late '70s, I started dreaming about whether I could own it and what it would be like,'' Kraft said.
Today's fans love what he's brought them - perhaps the best team in NFL history playing in a comfortable, modern stadium.
``I know what it was like when I sat in the stands and I feel their joy and that's a turn-on,'' Kraft said. ``This isn't something where I just came in and bought an asset. This has been a passion of mine since I've been a little kid.''

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