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JOAN VENNOCHI

Democrats adrift

DEMOCRATS in Massachusetts face the same problem as Democrats in Washington: Presented with opportunity, they are weaker than they want to be and confused about the path to victory.

''We're as clueless as anyone," groans veteran Democratic pollster Irwin ''Tubby" Harrison.

When it comes to the 2006 gubernatorial contest, Bay State Democrats are also leaderless.

Attorney General Thomas Reilly stumbled badly when he handpicked state Representative Marie St. Fleur to be his candidate for lieutenant governor; she dropped out 24 hours later after it was disclosed she had failed to pay taxes and student loans. Reilly's intervention into the investigation of an auto fatality kicked up controversy as well. The AG has $4 million in the bank and the highest political visibility on the Democratic side. But, as Boston University communications professor Tobe Berkovitz observed, Reilly is ''running out of feet to shoot."

Deval Patrick, a charismatic figure to a tight circle of grass-roots acolytes, is now running even with Reilly, according to one recent poll of 400 likely primary voters. The same poll also shows Reilly in a statistical dead heat with Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, the early favorite to win the GOP nomination. Adding to the sense of a party in flux is talk that Chris Gabrieli, a wealthy venture capitalist and the party's 2002 lieutenant governor candidate, might get into the Democratic primary race.

To get on the Democratic primary ballot, a candidate needs to win support from 15 percent of the delegates to the June Democratic convention. Philip W. Johnston, the Democratic Party chairman, said he believes in ''the Darwinian theory of politics. The fittest will survive. The strongest candidate will emerge from the process."

That's what Johnston says. This is more likely what he fantasizes about: What if only one candidate received 15 percent at the convention? What if Bay State Democrats rallied around Patrick, an African-American former Clinton Justice Department official? What if Illinois Senator Barack Obama promoted Patrick's candidacy, drawing national attention and money to the Bay State's 2006 governor's race?

Of course, there is a counter-argument to every hypothetical: Why should Massachusetts Democrats pin their hopes on Patrick, an untested, unvetted political unknown? The Globe recently reported that Patrick and his wife had a tax lien placed on their home several years ago and carry mortgages totaling approximately $6 million. Especially after the Reilly-St. Fleur debacle, a candidate's financial judgment is clearly on the table. What other surprises might lurk? Patrick's refusal so far to release his income tax filings and disclose income from corporate boards upon which he serves also worries some Democrats.

The 2006 governor's race was supposed to be the best shot Bay State Democrats had to recapture the office they lost 16 years ago. Mitt Romney's wandering political eye underscored Democrats' argument that Republicans only want the governor's office until they win it; then they leave.

Healey, the lieutenant governor under Romney, never won elective office in her own right. However, her husband's wealth and willingness to put it behind his wife's gubernatorial campaign quickly changed the dynamic. Money is not Healey's only strength. She is more socially liberal than Romney, but sticks to the simple fiscal message that works nationally and has worked for every Massachusetts GOP gubernatorial candidate since Bill Weld: Republicans will cut taxes and spending. Democrats will increase both, if they control the legislative and executive branches of government.

The Democrats' best argument for change is that after 16 years of Republican governors, Massachusetts is losing jobs, population, and stature. ''The state has not moved forward, it has fallen behind. There is no economic plan," argues Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who considered but rejected a run for governor.

Disappointment over Romney's intermittent interest in Massachusetts also fuels the Democrats' argument for a governor who wants to be governor, not president or a player in national Republican circles. If Healey wins, she will also be tempted to abandon the socially moderate positions she now embraces as a political candidate in Massachusetts. But that is a Republican weakness Democrats are unable to exploit -- until they resolve their own.

Describing the condition of Bay State Democrats, Harrison, the pollster, says: ''They're at a crossroads. Unless they change their message, their arguments, their themes, they're in real trouble."

Just like the national party, Massachusetts Democrats need a message. But first, they need a messenger.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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