If there was any doubt which Democrat the campaign of Kerry Healey preferred to face in November, it vanished last week when the Republican lieutenant governor lit into Christopher Gabrieli with a caustic negative advertisement.
At the time, Deval L. Patrick, the Republican's first choice, appeared to be pulling away from Gabrieli and the third Democrat, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly. But just to be sure, the Healey campaign began airing a spot that all but accused Gabrieli, a venture capitalist, of planning to feather his nest by creating a $1 billion state fund to encourage research in technology fields where he happened to have investments.
"We bought an insurance policy to make sure some negative information on Gabrieli was out there," a Healey campaign strategist said, on the condition of remaining anonymous.
Gabrieli, who was already losing ground to Patrick in late polls, alternately tried to counterattack, accusing Healey of leveling an outrageous and baseless charge at him, but also to spin the bushwhacking to his advantage. Healey, he contended, was trying to pick his opponent by knocking Gabrieli because she feared him in the final.
He was right.
"People in our inner circle made an argument for all three as being the best to run against, but the race against Patrick or Reilly seemed a bit cleaner in terms of contrasts," the Healey aide said. "Reilly had a lot of baggage and high negatives [in poll ratings] ... but it became clear he had virtually no chance to win."
Patrick, meanwhile, despite his charisma, had staked out a series of positions on taxes, immigration, and education that the Healey camp believed it could exploit during the seven-week campaign in the general election. The Republicans want to paint him as a liberal.
Healey's team also perceived shortcomings in Gabrieli as a candidate, including his proposing an array of expensive new initiatives and his past opposition to a rollback of the state income tax rate. But he also had a bottomless wallet of wealth to spend -- as much as Healey -- and had staked out what the Healey team believed were carefully poll-tested positions designed to appeal to independent swing voters.
"We looked at ways to try and put a lid on Gabrieli's growth and made a determination that the ad was the best way," the Healey campaign adviser said.
Some Democratic operatives have said they doubt the ad will be much of a factor in the outcome of today's primary, but the Healey aide said Gabrieli had to spend the last few days of the campaign "responding to our spot with his own on TV. It shook up the dynamic of the race at the end, limited his growth, and may have taken a bite out of him."
"The back and forth of a negative environment doesn't boost turnout, and our polling supported the generally accepted view that low turnout was helpful to Patrick and hurtful to Gabrieli," the adviser said, "so it played into that environment as well."