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Patrick has a role in Democrats' debate

D.C. appearance to put him on national stage

In his first venture into the national political scene, Governor Deval Patrick has agreed to appear at a televised presidential debate tomorrow night to introduce the eight Democratic candidates.

Patrick, just six months in office, will take center stage at Howard University in Washington, D.C., to spend close to five minutes on prime time to give some brief remarks and then present each of the eight candidates.

His prominent role is clearly a signal that he and his political advisers want to make an initial step into the bigger world of national politics, capitalizing on the attention he has already received as the nation's only African-American governor.

"It is an inevitable pull," said Democratic media consultant Dan Payne, referring to the long list of Massachusetts political figures who have been lured into the national limelight. "We are used to having our political leaders involved in national politics. Ted Kennedy, Mike Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, John Kerry, Mitt Romney -- and now Deval."

Patrick's aides, however, denied that the new governor's attention is straying from Massachusetts. They said he is committed to completing his four-year term and will probably seek reelection.

"The governor is honored to be asked to play a role in this important presidential debate," said Liz Morningstar, executive director of Patrick's campaign committee.

"He believes that Democrats have an opportunity to engage the American people in the kind of positive grass-roots campaign that succeeded here in Massachusetts," she said. "It's clear that new leadership in the White House is critical to ensuring the success of important initiatives in Massachusetts in the areas of healthcare, education, clean energy, and the environment."

The second major move for the 50-year old Democratic governor will come this fall when Patrick makes a decision, perhaps as early as September, to endorse a candidate for president. Those familiar with Patrick's thinking predict his choice will be Barack Obama, though Hillary and Bill Clinton are expected to make a full-court press to win his endorsement for her candidacy. Obama made a number of campaign appearances for Patrick in the 2006 gubernatorial race.

Obama and Patrick traveled a similar personal career path. Both have roots in Chicago, hold Harvard law degrees, and have emerged as the two principal figures in a new generation of African- American political leaders. Both have used their well-honed communications skills to draw strong grass-roots support that often crosses partisan lines, Patrick in his insurgent campaign for governor last year and Obama in his presidential bid. Critics say their messages as candidates are often more rhetorical than substance.

"Their lives and experience and the way they campaign are very similar," said Payne, a onetime Patrick adviser who has also worked on national campaigns.

Once he endorses, Patrick is expected to play a major role in the New Hampshire primary. It gives him a chance to reinvigorate the much-touted field operation that helped win him the governor's office and deploy it north of the Massachusetts border for the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. In the past, such efforts have often been used as test runs for future candidates from Massachusetts.

"His proximity to New Hampshire is of obvious significance," said Philip W. Johnston, former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party who is backing Obama. "His grass-roots army could make a huge difference for a presidential candidate."

Johnston said there is fierce competition among all the presidential candidates for Patrick's endorsement.

While most Patrick insiders are convinced he will endorse Obama, the governor must deal with the pressure that the Clintons are famous for applying. Patrick's career got a huge boost after Bill Clinton appointed him chief of the US Justice Department's civil rights division in 1994.

It was Patrick's first exposure to public office and served as a major springboard in his up-by-his-boot-straps career which began as a youth on the tough streets of Chicago's South Side.

Patrick's high profile role at the debate will give him his first exposure to a national audience. In addition, a host of the country's most experienced and savvy political operatives, the Democratic Party's fund-raising moguls, and hordes of media will get an up-close view of the Massachusetts Democrat.

"Governor Patrick is a rising star in the Democratic Party and an outstanding example of the strong leadership vision and values that our party offers to American people," said Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Patrick, who was on Prince Edward Island yesterday attending a conference of New England governors and Eastern Canadian premier s, was unavailable for comment.

PBS said that the debate, one of its All-American Presidential Forums, marks the first time that a panel of mostly journalists of color will preside over a prime time presidential debate.

Much of the questioning will focus on domestic priorities, ranging from healthcare, education, and criminal justice to rural development, immigration, environmental justice, and the digital divide. It will be moderated by PBS's late night television talk show host Tavis Smiley.