For a month, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly and Christopher Gabrieli had an understanding that Gabrieli would be his running mate. They had booked a location for a Monday press conference, a prominent fund-raiser was working on a list of people for an advance telephone alert, and they had even conducted a poll to gauge support for Gabrieli.
But the plan suddenly unraveled over the weekend, when Reilly, a Democratic candidate for governor, abruptly shifted course, according to a chronology pieced together from interviews with several individuals with direct knowledge of the events. On Saturday, Reilly contacted state Representative Marie St. Fleur, and by Sunday, in a meeting at Gabrieli's Beacon Hill home, Reilly began to backpedal.
Now, with his choice of St. Fleur blowing up on the launch pad, Democratic insiders are stunned by Reilly's decision-making process and shaking their heads in disbelief that his latest gaffe could undermine what had been a front-running campaign for the governor's office.
Yesterday, there were reports from Reilly operatives and others around the state that they expect the fiasco to hurt Reilly's performance against his primary opponent, Deval Patrick, on Saturday when thousands of party activists across the state gather to elect delegates to the June endorsing convention. Even before the running-mate problem, the Reilly campaign was downplaying expectations for the caucuses.
''There's shrapnel everywhere," said state Senator Steven C. Panagiotakos, a key Reilly supporter from Lowell. ''On the eve of the caucuses, it's bad timing for this. It takes the wind out of our sails."
The Patrick forces, already better organized than Reilly's, now have a chance at winning more delegates on Saturday in Lowell, a city where Reilly has always run well, Panagiotakos said.
''This shows that Reilly is inconsistent and doesn't have the right people around him to advise him," said Michael Donoghue, former Worcester County treasurer and a veteran of more than 30 years in central Massachusetts politics.
Donoghue, uncommitted in the governor's contest, said Reilly was already hurt by questions of loyalty in the area after the local favorite, Mayor Timothy P. Murray of Worcester, one of four Democrats already seeking the nomination for lieutenant governor, said publicly that Reilly had promised him earlier this year that he would not anoint a running mate or do anything to hurt Murray's candidacy. Murray was the Worcester-area coordinator of Reilly's close 1998 victory over the better-known Lois Pines in the attorney general's primary, Donoghue said.
Reilly's decision-making in choosing a running mate, which began some months ago, has been a series of missteps, according to five individuals familiar with the process. The individuals, none of whom would agree to be identified, offered the following chronology of Reilly's decision.
The campaign began to weigh the value of designating a favored candidate for lieutenant governor months ago, even though Reilly's choice would have to win a primary, independent of Reilly, in a race that now includes four other Democrats.
A team from Reilly's campaign reviewed a number of potential candidates, including St. Fleur, before settling on Gabrieli, who was the party's nominee for lieutenant governor in 2002 and had run unsuccessfully for Congress in 1998. Reilly and Gabrieli met more than a month ago, the first of a series of meetings that extended to Sunday, which included detailed discussions of what Gabrieli's role would be and plans for a formal announcement Monday of this week. In January, Reilly's campaign even conducted a poll that showed that Gabrieli had much higher name recognition and would be leading the other four Democrats in the race by a significant margin.
The review of a number of candidates basically was a ''thorough and thoughtful" assessment of assets and liabilities of each candidate but did not include deep background checks of the kind that would have revealed St. Fleur's chronic and serious tax and credit problems that were reported yesterday by the Globe. In that informal balance sheet on the various potential candidates under consideration, St. Fleur was nowhere close to being the strongest contender. Gabrieli was a consensus choice, one Reilly adviser said.
The Globe reported Friday that Gabrieli appeared to be the leading candidate among four finalists. The list included St. Fleur, but she then said she would not run because she had already pledged her support to Deborah Goldberg, a former Brookline selectwoman, who was already in the race. The others, state Senators Therese Murray of Plymouth and Mark C. Montigny of New Bedford, also said they had no plans to run for lieutenant governor.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston and Ralph C. Martin II, former Suffolk district attorney, urged Reilly to consider St. Fleur, who has risen to a leadership position in the House, the Globe reported yesterday. Neither returned calls yesterday.
Reilly campaign spokesman Corey Welford declined to comment on the process. But both Reilly and St. Fleur told the Globe Monday that the attorney general contacted his former assistant Saturday about the possibility of joining him.
The legislator told the Globe Monday that she had informed Reilly that she had ''some financial issues . . . some struggles," but that he did not press her for details.
''We did not talk numbers," she said. ''He didn't ask me how much. He just wanted to know, 'Are you taking care of them?' "
Reilly's decision to back off Gabrieli and shift to St. Fleur was made without consulting or even informing a number of his key advisers, most of whom are much more experienced than he is in high-level political campaigns, according to the individuals interviewed for this article.
It is not the first time he has ignored political advice and paid a price. Last month, Reilly, in a series of interviews, kept alive for days the story of his role in a case involving a car crash in which alcohol may have been involved in taking the lives of two teenage girls from Southborough. Reilly defended the call, saying he was concerned about the privacy of the victims' parents, one of whom had contributed to his campaign.
But after the St. Fleur development, many of Reilly's closest supporters and advisers were stunned by his behavior. One called it a ''knee-jerk decision," reflecting complaints among several Democrats yesterday that Reilly acted rashly without conducting a diligent check of his choice.
Another supporter said it is ironic that Reilly, so disciplined in so many aspects of his life and work, made such an ill-considered decision. Others said it is consistent with Reilly's makeup, a natural aversion to the cold calculations of politics and a desire to seem independent of them.
By many accounts, Reilly, the son of Irish immigrants, likes to surround himself with people whose life story resembles his own, rising from poverty and adversity to achievement and success. St. Fleur, who came to this country from Haiti as a child, struck a chord with him.
Walter V. Robinson of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.