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3 Democrats; 3 approaches

MASSACHUSETTS DEMOCRATS have three very different gubernatorial candidates this year -- and as the primary contest enters its final month, those candidates have three very different approaches to the race.

Attorney General Tom Reilly has had a tough go of it since the Big Dig tunnel ceiling collapsed, with the public conversation brimming with questions about whether the state's top lawman should have played a more vigorous oversight role on the project. As the statewide office that once made him the front-runner has become a mixed blessing, Reilly has sharpened his message, casting himself as the champion of everyday citizens, with older and urban blue-collar voters specifically in mind.

One can see that in his television ads, which position Reilly as a populist and contrast his approach with that of the Romney-Healey administration on concerns like pensions, prescription-drug costs, jobs, and education. Although Reilly had sagged in some private polling, his camp is convinced the latest ads have helped him regain traction.

Perhaps -- but there's a limit to this approach. A strong front-runner hoping to overshadow rivals in his own party often focuses before the primary on the other party's candidate. But at best, Reilly is tied with his Democratic rivals; at worst, he's slipped somewhat behind. Either way, castigating the Republicans won't make most primary voters forget the two other Democratic contenders. And as the best-known figure in the field, the AG has less room to grow than do his opponents.

While Reilly has had a tough summer, not so Deval Patrick, who continues to excite liberals and grass-roots activists with a broad theme of fresh, smart leadership committed to reengaging citizens in civic life.

In one clever flourish, Patrick tells supporters that ``this is not my campaign, it's yours." Actually, though, this campaign, even more than most, is all about its charismatic candidate, his up-by-the-bootstraps story, his character, and his accomplishments. Rather than stressing a specific array of issues, Patrick is running as an impressionistic progressive, offering the politics of personality, hope, and renewal -- and promising a different way of doing things.

Exactly what he'll do gets pretty scant mention in a poetic public presentation that remains short on substance. At an event last week, Patrick said that ``we can talk all day" about how to create a strong economy or build affordable housing, but ``unless we have a stake in each other, nothing else is possible." Talking all day would be tedious, no doubt, but five minutes of specifics would certainly have been a refreshing tonic.

Still, Patrick's star quality and his liberal atmospherics have helped him consolidate what Howard Dean labeled the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party -- and if Chris Gabrieli and Reilly split the moderate vote, that may well be enough for victory.

If Patrick presents a charismatic candidacy, Gabrieli is offering more of a technocratic one, using an expensive ad campaign to highlight his ideas on issues like education and energy and to promise results and accountability. His camp believes that after three Republican governors who have, one way or another, run off to join the circus, voters are hungry for someone ready to tackle tough problems here, and in a pragmatic rather than partisan way.

``It shouldn't matter if an idea is a Democratic idea or a Republican idea as long as it's a good idea that gets results," is the way Gabrieli puts it in one of his TV ads, a pitch that obviously has independents in mind.

Should Reilly fade, Gabrieli is well positioned to pick up the defectors, since the two candidates appeal to some of the same voters. The question for Gabrieli, however, is whether an approach that tries to tamp down partisanship in favor of pragmatism and policy smarts sails into the wind of a year in which political passions, at least nationally, are high.

A month is an eternity in a campaign , but at this point, I'd give Patrick a slight advantage . He has a strong claim on liberals, while Gabrieli and Reilly are in a tug-of-war for moderates. His more modestly financed campaign has weathered its summer advertising drought without fading, and today starts with its own TV ads. Factor in his personal appeal and his strong field organization, and he's well positioned.

Still, as the primary campaign enters the mean season, what's really remarkable is how hard it is even to designate a clear front-runner, let alone pick a likely winner.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is

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