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JOAN VENNOCHI

Kerry Healey's backfiring campaign ads

WHO STOLE Kerry Healey's moderate Republican brain and turned it into something only a very angry, very conservative voter could love?

Like all political candidates, Healey is ultimately responsible for her own campaign. However, she must realize by now that the strategists around her are guilty of political malpractice. She adopted the wrong tone for this time in Bay State politics; and I doubt it will ever be the right tone for any female candidate seeking statewide office. It's sexist but true. There's a very fine line between tough and witchy.

With two weeks to go until election day, Democrat Deval Patrick leads Healey 53 percent to 26 percent, according to the latest 7News/Suffolk University poll. Here's why: Massachusetts voters never got a chance to meet a smart, articulate, socially moderate, fiscally conservative candidate for governor -- a female version of the Bill Weld who ran for governor in 1990. Instead, when they think of Healey, they now think of a woman devoid of humor or grace, thanks in large measure to relentlessly nasty ads and the occasional political dirty trick, all aimed at Patrick.

In the latest Healey campaign misstep, volunteers dressed up in orange jumpsuits similar to those worn by prisoners demonstrated in front of Patrick's Milton home and the residence of his campaign manager, John Walsh, in Abington. Why did it take the candidate four days to acknowledge that that was the wrong thing to do, even after learning that the jumpsuited volunteers scared Walsh's 12-year-old son? Imagine if such a group showed up at her home and frightened her children?

From the start, Healey had much to overcome. Voters didn't know much about her, and they are increasingly dissatisfied with her boss, Governor Mitt Romney. Healey took those negatives and piled more on herself: Instead of framing the issues in a way that reflects the real concerns of average voters, she stretched them into cartoon-like fear factors. Unless you are part of the angry talk radio crowd, it's a turn-off.

The best example of this is Healey's take on crime. She made this campaign all about Patrick's onetime support for a convicted rapist, Benjamin LaGuer. Why did LaGuer attract A-list support from lawyers like Patrick and Robert Cordy, once legal counsel to Governor William F. Weld and now a Supreme Judicial Court justice? Partly because, just as Romney said in a recent interview with Channel 4 political reporter Jon Keller, "This person happened to be well-spoken."

Apparently, Romney sometimes praises rapists -- if one wants to label as "praise" a truthful representation of LaGuer's apparent eloquence. Patrick's similar "praise" of LaGuer's eloquence is the focus of Healey's most negative political ad -- the one that backfired on her, according to the most recent polling. The ad doesn't work, because people are smart. They know they have less to fear from a well-spoken but still safely jailed LaGuer than they do from an administration that cut local aid that is needed to hire cops. That's also why the orange jumpsuited demonstrators hurt Healey, not Patrick. She can talk tough on crime, but the Romney-Healey administration has not delivered. The rate of violent crime is up, and arrests are down.

As this campaign enters its final phase, Healey should stop listening to that lean and hungry circle of male operatives who permeate politics. They know how to do one thing: attack and never back down. Even though the "rapist" ad is hurting Healey, the campaign continues to run it. The Healey campaign is also running a more positive ad, but it is likely too little, too late.

Remember the stereotypical male driver who refuses to stop and ask for directions even when hopelessly lost? That sounds a lot like Rob Gray and Tim O'Brien, two Republican strategists who are driving the Healey campaign bus. They refused to reverse course.

Now, the latest polling shows that was a mistake. More than 53 percent of voters now view Healey unfavorably. And the gender gap is no more. In the 7News/Suffolk survey, men favored Patrick over Healey, 53 to 28 percent; the breakdown for women was 52-24 for Patrick.

Healey often mentions her mother, a retired teacher who accompanies her on some campaign events. This would be a good moment to consider some time-honored mother's advice: Be yourself.

Healey will never have Patrick's charisma, but she still can have her own dignity.

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

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