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Decision time for Democrats

After a campaign that stretched 522 days and cost $25 million, the names of three Democrats appear today on the primary ballots. Former federal prosecutor Deval Patrick, businessman Christopher Gabrieli, and Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly are vying for the chance to take on Republican Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey in November. Here are some key factors that may determine who will lead the Democrats' quest to take back the corner office on Beacon Hill after 16 years of GOP dominance:

  • TURNOUT Meteorologists are forecasting that the weather today will be fairly good for democracy: Partly cloudy with highs in the mid-70s and a chance of showers tonight. Despite the favorable conditions, election officials predict that only 620,000 eligible voters -- less than 16 percent of the state's 3.9 million voters -- will bother to cast a ballot before the polls close tonight at 8 p.m.

    If that estimate holds, it will be dramatically lower than the 2002 and 1998 gubernatorial primaries, when turnout topped 25 percent. Political watchers say that could favor Patrick, the front runner in the polls. He has the support of activists, those Democrats so committed they would tromp through a blizzard to cast their votes in a primary. At the same time, a lot of his grassroots supporters are new to the political scene. After reading about his commanding lead in the most recent polls, they could become complacent and stay home, mistakenly assuming that their candidate's nomination is a sure thing.

    Gabrieli is banking on independent, suburban voters to turnout in droves, especially in that crucial corridor between Route 128 and Interstate 495 that rings Boston. He has courted moderate, white collar Democrats and unenrolled voters who are essential in a general election but may not be as motivated to come out for a primary.

    Reilly needs turnout to spike in urban, blue-collar centers: Boston, Lowell, Fall River, and his native Springfield. He is the candidate of the establishment, says Democratic political strategist Mary Anne Marsh, and has the support of some unions, big city mayors and other office holders. "The question is: 'How much can other elected officials deliver for him?'" asks Marsh.

  • VOTING IN BLOCS The Democratic Party is a loose tapestry of special interests, longtime loyalists and eager newcomers, ranging from blue-collar labors to social liberals. So far, Patrick has the broadest coalition of support, according to most political watchers. His grassroots campaign has energized 18- to 35-year-olds as well as Democratic activists, earning him the endorsement at the party's convention in June. Also largely in Patrick's camp: blacks, Hispanics, teachers, gays, women, social liberals and some unions.

    Gabrieli's message seems to be geared toward those unpredictable, unenrolled suburban homeowners who may not cast a ballot in a Democratic primary. Political watchers say he has also won some support from upper income, highly educated voters. Gabrieli's support of same sex marriage has made him palatable to gays and social liberals, but his bipartisan theme has staked out more of a centrist position. He has campaigned to use revenue growth to roll back the income tax from 5.3 percent to 5 percent.

    Reilly, a veteran campaigner, has what Marsh calls the "lunch bucket Democrats," social conservatives, and some unions. His message of trust seems to have resonated with the elderly, who largely aren't concerned with his initial opposition to gay marriage. "The problem is that he has lost the liberals completely," says Marsh. "That's just too big of a constituency in the Democratic Party."

  • DOES "ELECTABILITY" COUNT? The eleventh-hour pitch that made the largest splash in the Democratic primary came from an unlikely source: the GOP nominee. Healey's television ad attacking Gabrieli left both sides asking questions. Republican analyst Jim Nuzzo says the spot sent a clear message: "The one that would scare Healey the most is Gabrieli." He has tried to parlay the attack into a backhanded endorsement. Gabrieli has been telling voters in automated phone calls and his own ads that Republicans fear him because of his inclusive, roll-back-the-income-tax mantra. Campaign workers say an internal Gabrieli poll has put him just 4 points behind Patrick, which is within the margin of error.

  • THE ONLY POLL THAT MATTERS Reilly, the one-time front runner, has continued to slip in the polls. In an e-mail this weekend, he reminded supporters that he was 6 points behind in Election Day exit polls in his 1998 race for attorney general. He won by 8 points. In one of the final debates, Reilly came on strong and accused Gabrieli of leaking a damaging report to the press about his former running mate and has since intensified his characterization of his opponents as out-of-touch millionaires. Could today be the political swan song for the long-time prosecutor and party stalwart who has held elected office since 1991? Or will Reilly's everyman message energize his blue-collar base and give him the primary upset that few wonks say is possible?

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