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BRIAN MCGRORY

Electoral letdown

This was supposed to be great, this final weekend of a wide-open gubernatorial campaign.

This was supposed to be the weekend that the national spotlight shone brightest on Massachusetts, the weekend that we prepared to elect either our first black or our first woman governor. It was supposed to come down to the wire in an old-fashioned, full throttle race.

It was going to be great. On the one side, there would be Kerry Healey's moderate credentials, her pitch to preserve two-party rule on Beacon Hill, her natural appeal to other women, her maturity on fiscal issues. On the other side, we would have Deval Patrick's philosophy for a relentlessly activist government, the minute details of his novel proposals, his unusual mix of boardroom and courtroom experience.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Election Day. The Massachusetts political arena in early November is starting to feel a lot like Fenway Park felt in early September, void of energy and drama as the players limp through the motions toward an outcome that was determined long before its time.

What we have ended up with instead of glory is a front-running candidate, Patrick, so cautious that he made no public appearances yesterday, just five days before voters go to the polls. He was in Pittsfield earlier this week, Pittsfield, according to sources, being in Western Massachusetts. You got the sense that if his staff could get away with him campaigning in Omaha, they would pay for a private jet.

And then there's Healey, beaten up in a series of debates in which the formats were unfair to the core, flailing in a hole that she meticulously dug for herself. The last time anyone spent millions of dollars so poorly, Dennis Kozlowski's name was on the check.

So what went wrong?

Obviously, Healey did. I've said it. My colleagues have said it. Republican consultants sitting on the sidelines are suddenly saying it. Even her opponent said it on Wednesday night when he so correctly declared at the debate that she is better than her campaign.

Healey intervened in the final hours of the Democratic primary with an attack ad against Chris Gabrieli that was as gutless as it was absurd. She ended up with the exact opponent that she wanted.

On primary night, she launched her campaign not by celebrating the democratic process or by sharing her ambitions or outlining her virtues, but with a withering attack against Patrick that left viewers scratching their heads. For many voters, it was the first lengthy exposure to Healey, and a good one it was not.

Ben LaGuer was a gift of epic proportions, showing Patrick to be a coddler of criminals and loose with the truth. In small, even medium doses, it would have been an effective issue, but Healey's big problem was that she didn't know when to let go. By the time she was done with her LaGuer onslaught, voters had decided, rightly so, that she had nothing else to say.

The debate sponsors did Healey no favors. By continuing to allow the unqualified and unelectable Grace Ross into the later debates, the organizers merely cluttered the process. Even worse, it allowed Patrick, Ross, and Christy Mihos to gang up on Healey in a me-too, junior high school kind of way. The result was a muddled sham.

Good campaigns should be a crucible. Close campaigns are a breeding ground for great ideas. Patrick, despite all his complaints of negativity, was given an easy ride. Now, he's doing what any smart politico would do: cautiously biding time.

He has never had to fully explain his proposal to reduce property taxes, which makes little sense. He has never been completely pinned down on the MCAS. He has never really said how he would pay for his myriad spending proposals. With Healey as negative as she was, Patrick could fall back on optimistic slogans that made him look like a prince.

In the end, the voters may elect the best candidate in the race. The question is, in a competitive campaign: How much better could he have been?

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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