Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly held a double-digit lead over his rival, Deval Patrick, in the Democratic race for governor, but support for Patrick has surged, a new Boston Globe poll of likely primary voters suggests.
Reilly drew 35 percent to Patrick's 22 percent among likely Democratic primary voters, while Chris Gabrieli, a wealthy venture capitalist who is considering whether to join the race, was supported by 4 percent. The poll suggests that Reilly may be weathering the turmoil that hit his candidacy earlier this winter but that Patrick, who drew only 8 percent in a poll last summer, has established himself as a serious contender for the Democratic nomination six months before the Sept. 19 party primary.
In a general election match-up, both Reilly and Patrick led Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, the only Republican in the race. When Independent Christy Mihos was added to the mix, both Democrats still outpolled Healey.
Reilly led Healey, 50 percent to 35 percent in a two-person race, with 12 percent undecided. But when respondents were given the additional choice of Mihos, the Democratic attorney general slipped to 40 percent, Healey fell to 26 percent, and Mihos, who left the GOP to run as an independent, received 15 percent. Another 18 percent were undecided.
The poll indicated that Patrick was leading Healey, 44 percent to 38 percent, with 16 percent undecided. But in a three-person trial heat, Patrick fell to 36 percent, Healey to 29 percent, and Mihos drew 13 percent, with 21 percent undecided.
''Mihos certainly adds a level of uncertainty into the race," said Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the poll for the Globe. He said the poll indicated that Healey will be most damaged by a Mihos candidacy because she, as the Republican nominee, would have little margin for error in the heavily Democratic state. ''Any votes she loses has a greater impact," he said. ''Five percent or more for Mihos, and it will be really tough for Healey."
Taken from March 3 to March 9, the poll of 503 likely voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. The smaller sample of 397 likely Democratic primary voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
The poll offers insight into two relative unknowns -- Mihos, the convenience store magnate who entered the campaign last month, and Patrick, who has been running for nearly a year but also has never run for elective office.
The poll suggested that Patrick, although he still trailed Reilly, has cut into Reilly's lead. The poll indicated that the number of voters who didn't know Patrick has dropped from 70 percent in August to 50 percent this month. And, with 25 percent of those surveyed saying they were undecided, the Democratic race appears to be wide open.
Mihos drew support from independents or unenrolled voters, who are the state's largest and most influential voting bloc. Mihos is a former member of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority who questioned cost overruns at the Big Dig and who opposed toll increases to pay for the project. Forty-four percent of those surveyed said they did not know of Mihos. Of those who knew him, 20 percent rated him favorably, 23 percent unfavorably.
One of those polled, David W. Butler of Centerville, who is a registered independent, said he chose Reilly over Healey in a two-way race, but moved to Mihos when the survey included him in a three-way race.
''The fact that he's new blood and not the same-old, same-old is attractive to me," said Butler, a 61-year old nurse's aide at Cape Cod Hospital. ''Both parties in there now are very repetitious. He would be almost like new blood."
Butler described himself as an unenrolled voter who voted for Republican Mitt Romney in 2002 and would support him if he had run this year. He said he was attracted by Mihos's positions on taxes and eliminating tollbooths on the turnpike, but he acknowledged that he wants to know more about Mihos's stances. ''I want to know more about all the candidates," he said. ''It is really so early in the game."
Another survey respondent, Bill Howe, a Hanscom Air force Base employee who provides computer support, said Mihos had impressed him for having confronted Jane Swift, former acting governor. He initially chose Healey over Reilly in a two-person matchup, but moved to Mihos in the three-way race.
''It was a gut-level shot," Howe, 50, said of his switch from Healey to Mihos. ''He seemed out of the typical mold. Without doing any serious longtime thought, he impressed me a bit more. . . . Kerry Healey has been pretty much invisible. She hasn't made an impression on me."
Reilly's lead appears to be continuing after a rough couple of months for the attorney general, who for well over a year has been considered the favorite to win the nomination.
In early January, Reilly was criticized for having made a call last fall to a district attorney inquiring about the public disclosure of autopsy reports for two Southborough girls killed in a car accident. Early last month, his choice as a running mate, state Representative Marie St. Fleur, pulled out after the Globe reported that she was delinquent on tax payments. Then, Patrick, who has strong support among grass-roots activists and liberals who dominate the local party committees, won a strong majority of the convention delegates at Democratic Party caucuses around the state on Feb. 4.
Although he still held a lead, Reilly's rating among voters has suffered over the past several months. Forty-nine percent of the respondents rated him favorably, 28 percent unfavorably. By contrast, 58 percent of those surveyed in August viewed him favorably, and 19 percent unfavorably.
Democrats with low levels of education and those who lived inside Route 128 had the most favorable opinions of Reilly, the poll suggested. Among those making more than $100,000, Patrick picked up 33 percent support, while Reilly received 30 percent. Among those making less than $30,000, Reilly received 56 percent, Patrick had 16 percent.
The support for Patrick, a former top civil rights enforcer in the Justice Department under the Clinton administration, is significant because his backers among activist Democrats and independent voters are likely to turn out in the Sept. 19 primary.
''While Patrick is not nearly as well known as Reilly, the kinds of voters he is attracting are the voting demographic that will definitely turn out in the primary," Smith said. ''Reilly is getting the blue-collar vote. Patrick is getting his votes from among the elite and in the faculty clubs."
Those who do know Patrick view him positively, with 26 percent of the respondents saying they had a favorable rating of him, and 11 percent giving him an unfavorable rating.
Patrick is the first African-American in Massachusetts to be a major contender for governor, but Reilly appears to have stronger support among black voters. Although the sample is small, Reilly got 39 percent of the African-American voters who expressed a preference, and Patrick 6 percent. However, another 41 percent said they were undecided.
Healey's overall standing has dropped since the August poll, suggesting vulnerability. Forty-one percent of those surveyed said they viewed her favorably, and 28 percent said they viewed her unfavorably. In the August survey, 47 viewed her favorably and 23 percent gave her an unfavorable rating.
Four of the five candidates -- Healey, Patrick, Mihos, and Gabrieli -- are multimillionaires, but their wealth does not seem to be a major factor for voters. Eighty-six percent of those polled said it made little difference in choosing whether to vote for a candidate.
Fifty-three percent of those questioned said the candidates should make their income tax returns public, while 38 percent said the candidates should keep them private. Reilly, who describes himself as the only candidate who is not a millionaire, has called on his rivals to release their tax returns.
Voter opinion of Romney appears to have dropped since he announced he would not seek reelection, a step widely seen as preparation for a 2008 presidential campaign. His job approval rating was 46 percent, down from 51 percent in the August survey, while 47 percent disapprove of his performance, up from 42 percent. Still, Romney's personal popularity remains constant: 49 percent gave him a favorable rating, compared with 50 percent in August, and his unfavorable rating remaining at the 41 percent he received in the last survey.
The most popular state political figure among those whose standing was polled is Martha Coakley, a Democratic and the Middlesex district attorney, who is running for attorney general. Fifty-two percent of those surveyed viewed her favorably, and 7 percent unfavorably. Even among Republicans, she held a 54 percent favorable rating. US Senator Edward M. Kennedy was viewed favorably by 63 percent, with 31 rating him unfavorably. US Senator John F. Kerry registered a 60 percent favorable, 35 percent unfavorable rating.