As Republican-turned-independent Christy Mihos officially launched his candidacy for governor, four current and former GOP governors rallied support last night for Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, part of an effort to close ranks and stabilize her campaign in the face of Mihos's defection from the party.
The dueling events highlighted the challenge the Republicans face to bolster Healey's chances of holding the office the GOP has occupied for nearly 16 years.
The fund-raising event last night at the Boston Park Plaza, planned months ago, could not have been better timed for Healey, as she and her aides battle the perception that her candidacy has taken a serious blow with Mihos's decision to bolt the party and run as an independent.
The event was hosted by former governors William F. Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Jane Swift and by Governor Mitt Romney.
Healey's campaign aides said her committee expects to raise $300,000. Another boost will come shortly when Healey makes a final decision on a running mate from a short list of candidates. Aides said that will be announced in several weeks.
A few hours before the fund-raiser, Mihos appeared in front of the State House to formally announce his candidacy. Setting a populist tone, he vowed to drive himself to work each day and said that he would not take donations from lobbyists, state employees, or political action committees.
He also declared his support for tax and toll relief, gay marriage, adoptions by same-sex couples, and abortion rights.
''This gate will be forever open to the people's building, and I as governor intend to return this building to the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," Mihos said, pointing to the massive iron gate that sits at the foot of the large granite stairway at the front of the 18th-century Bulfinch building. The gate and the front lawn have been closed since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
''This is not a vanity thing whatsoever," said Mihos, a former board member of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority who clashed with the Swift administration over Big Dig cost overruns and toll hikes. He has asserted that no Republicans came to his defense in his battles at the Turnpike Authority.
In the eyes of several political observers, Mihos presents a challenge for Healey as the two battle over Republican and GOP-leaning independent voters.
Healey's campaign, however, insists that he could draw voters from Democrats as well.
''It's a bit of a wild card and historically tough to do," Cellucci said of Mihos's chances. He said Healey should follow the strategy that he, Weld, and Romney used to win in a heavily Democratic state.
''I think Kerry Healey should go out there and make the point that Massachusetts has done pretty well with Republican governors," Cellucci said before last night's fund-raising event.
''The stake has been driven into the heart of the label Taxachusetts," he said. ''As long as a Republican is in the corner office, that stake will stay firmly in place."
Senate minority leader Brian P. Lees dismissed assertions that Mihos will hurt Healey.
''I don't buy that at all," Lees said. ''It is hard for an independent to break through.
''Once people realize that the only reason he is running is that he is mad at those who are running the party, then they will focus on the Republican and Democratic candidates, and he will be marginalized," he said.
Still, the general consensus among political observers, including a former chairman of the state GOP, sharply differed with Cellucci's assessment.
''There is no question that this hurts Kerry Healey," said James Rappaport, the former GOP state chairman who lost to Healey in a battle for the party's nomination for lieutenant governor in 2002. ''Anybody who says it doesn't is fooling themselves."
Rappaport said that Mihos, who is a friend of his, could win in much the same way that independents Angus King did in Maine in 1994 and Lowell Weicker did in Connecticut in 1990.
A political scientist who follows state politics agreed. ''It is potentially catastrophic to Kerry Healey," said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University.
''Mihos has enough money to make himself a serious candidate, and he will peel off some votes," Berry said. ''It will be more likely that the votes he gets will come out of her hide than the Democratic candidates."
Meanwhile, Healey told reporters that she would focus on cutting taxes, improving education, and helping to create jobs.
''I welcome Christy to the race," she said yesterday, according to State House News Service. ''It doesn't matter to me if it's two candidates or three; my message is going to be the same. . . . It's not really going to really change how I approach things."
GOP operatives insisted that Mihos will drain as many votes away from the Democratic nominee as from Healey.
With no battle for the April party convention endorsement and no costly primary fight, Healey can focus on the general election voters, who are generally more moderate than primary voters, they said.
''It gives you more freedom in your policy and political decisions," said a top political strategist who is advising Healey.
Also, because she is now the only GOP candidate, the party is free to throw its resources behind Healey.
It can immediately make unlimited contributions to assist Healey, buying advertising and direct mail and paying salaries for political workers.