In private conversations, key supporters of Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly have long dismissed Deval Patrick as a minor impediment to winning the Democratic nomination for governor. Not anymore, after a lackluster showing in the party caucuses over the weekend capped the worst week of Reilly's political career.
For weeks, Reilly partisans had been spinning low expectations and conceding the convention endorsement in June to Patrick. The purpose was clear: Portray the organizational achievements of the lesser-known Patrick as an inside job by liberal activists and accentuate Reilly's strengths, both real (an almost 6-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage) and supposed (electability in November against the Republican nominee).
But following so closely behind Reilly's blunder in choosing a running mate whose tax and credit problems forced an abrupt withdrawal, the caucus results will be viewed in a different light, several Reilly campaign officials acknowledged in interviews.
Recent events also increase the likelihood that Reilly will be forced to spend heavily and spend earlier and to slug it out with Patrick if he is to win the September primary, said a Reilly adviser who requested anonymity.
Moreover, the caucus results demonstrate that Patrick's team is well on the way to establishing a statewide field organization for the fall primary.
''Tom realizes he's got to throw away the playbook and start anew," Senate President Robert E. Travaglini said after meeting Reilly over lunch with four fellow Democratic senators last week. ''The course of this campaign has changed," Travaglini said, describing himself as ''inclined to be supportive" of Reilly but not yet committed to his candidacy. ''In the eyes of some, he is no longer considered the front-runner."
''But for the mishaps, the convention would be an afterthought; now it's something he'll have to deal with," said state Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Methuen Democrat and Reilly loyalist. ''The convention now becomes a story. It shouldn't have been."
Baddour and several other Reilly supporters who were interviewed said they believe his image as being independent of the largely liberal activist wing of the party remains a long-term asset, consistent with Reilly's plan to target his appeal primarily to the general electorate, not the activist core of the Democratic Party. They also said Reilly had made a token effort in the caucuses to conserve resources.
Patrick's campaign has been quietly building its ground force for months, in part with an elaborate homemade computer program that allows volunteers to build and monitor the progress of the growing organization with a few mouse clicks.
In place for the past several weeks, the database will be retooled for the statewide primary campaign to build an organization down to the level of the state's 2,157 precincts, said John Walsh, campaign manager for Patrick.
Meanwhile the campaign has ramped up its online fund-raising, bringing in successively larger amounts the past three months, Walsh said, in an effort to cut into Reilly's money advantage.
In building the field operation, the Patrick campaign made a heavy early investment of candidate time, 38 events in January alone, and spent about $100,000 to develop the technology, Walsh said. Going forward, however, it will become an efficient, cheap organization-building tool, he said.
Some of Patrick's deepest organizational strength was far from the left-leaning enclaves. They were in places such as Cape Cod, the Berkshires, and Plymouth County, where Walsh, a veteran organizer from Abington, has been helping to deliver delegates and votes to candidates for more than two decades.
State Senator Therese Murray of Plymouth, a Reilly ally, praised Walsh as ''the best guy in the business."
''He does field like nobody else," Murray said.
In the Democratic gubernatorial contest four years ago, Murray said, Walsh engineered Shannon O'Brien's sweep of the caucuses in Plymouth County. O'Brien went on to win the convention endorsement and nomination for governor before losing in November to Mitt Romney.
To succeed in the caucuses, which select most of the delegates to the June convention in Worcester, the Patrick campaign let its volunteers decide whether to go for broke with their own delegate slate or negotiate slots on a single slate with Reilly forces and others in their towns or wards.
They paired with supporters of the four candidates for lieutenant governor in some places. In Boston, where Mayor Thomas M. Menino, a Reilly supporter, controlled the largest number of delegates, the two sides cut deals in nearly all of the 22 wards, resulting in about a third of the nearly 400 delegates going to Patrick, a top Menino operative said.
Both sides agreed to avoid a repeat of 2002, the aide said, when a flood of activists supporting Robert Reich, who entered the governor's race at the last minute, appeared and won delegate slots in two Jamaica Plain wards, angering many long-time activists who were left out.
Both campaigns are already trying to position expectations for the convention outcome. ''The convention is a small group of people, traditionally more to the left of the people who vote in a primary," Murray said.
''I don't think the convention was ever winnable for him," Baddour said of Reilly. ''He didn't win it the first time, and he was booed the next time." He was referring to Reilly losing, by a 57-to-43 percent margin, the 1998 convention endorsement for attorney general to Lois Pines, then a state senator.
Reilly won the primary and election. In 2003, shortly after Reilly called for the resignation of William M. Bulger as president of the University of Massachusetts, the attorney general was jeered as he stood poised to address delegates at an off-year convention in Lowell.