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Behind Patrick's winning strategy

The irony is, they wanted Deval Patrick.

In early September, advisers to Kerry Healey knew the political climate was so dangerously anti-incumbent, anti-Romney, and anti-Republican that her only hope of winning was drawing a liberal opponent like Patrick. Voters disagreed with him on everything from taxes to immigration to teacher merit pay.

Upon his primary win, the Healey camp seemed elated. But five days later, Healey's strategists were poring over a grim internal poll. Patrick had emerged from the primary with sky-high approval ratings that seemed unshakable, even among the wider electorate. The strategists say they had only one option: go negative.

They needed to dent his popular image and force voters to take a hard look at his positions.

Now, the Healey team is under attack for running a campaign which some call vicious and others say failed to let voters warm up to Healey. But her advisers defend their approach, saying that Healey was in the race to win. Running an upbeat, positive campaign from that point would have amounted to surrender.

"It's actually quite liberating, because once you understand that, your direction was very clear," said Tim O'Brien, Healey's campaign manager.

Critics, most of them Republican, say Healey's attack ads were too harsh and dominated too much of her candidacy. They said her advisers failed to establish a bond with the public and put forward a positive agenda before the attacks began.

The strategists dismiss the criticism as naive and say they were done in by a constellation of factors: the absence of a GOP primary campaign; a civil Democratic primary that left the nominee unscathed; and millions of dollars in spending on TV ads by special interests backing Patrick.

They say they actually succeeded in painting Patrick as a tax and spend liberal. But, in a contrast to the last four elections, voters did not seem to mind.

"If you had told us in March that 58 percent of voters would think that Deval Patrick was going to raise taxes, I would have said 'We're going to win this thing,"' O'Brien said, referring to an Oct. 24 poll by 7NEWS and Suffolk University.

To those who complain about the negative ads, Healey advisers point out that the only time Patrick's lead shrank was after Healey attacked him with TV spots blasting him for his advocacy of violent criminals. Between Sept. 24 and Oct. 14, the campaign's polls indicated she had narrowed the gap with Patrick from 34 points to 9 points. What crippled her candidacy, they say, was the torrent of spending on ads, especially by Patrick allies such as the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

The Republicans interviewed for this story, however, say the failure came before that. The campaign needed to showcase Healey's down-to-earth side and command of the issues.

State Representative Jeffrey Davis Perry, a Sandwich Republican, thought Healey was on the right track at her announcement last winter. He kept his eyes on the audience as she described how she got a job to help support her family after her father suffered a heart attack when she was 15.

"It was a kind of mesmerizing connection between Kerry Healey and the crowd," he said. Later, he said, "I told her that specifically -- 'You need to do more of that.' "

Healey strategists say they tried. One of her first ads, which began running in mid-July, was a biographical spot that included family pictures and described her middle-class upbringing.

But David D'Arcangelo, chairman of the Malden Republican City Committee, said that was too late. He and others told the campaign back in the early spring that they needed to be airing ads so voters could learn more about Healey.

Healey strategists said the campaign could not afford ads that early, even with the $10 million Healey was prepared to spend.

The onslaught of television ads run by Democratic primary candidates in August also took a toll. Democrats criticized the Romney-Healey administration and drew a bleak picture of Massachusetts.

"The Democratic primary turned into a competition to see who could complain the most about the state," said Stuart Stevens, Healey's media consultant.

With no primary of her own, Healey could not break through. During the summer, she attended barbecues with supporters and held press conferences on everything from fishing rules to pension reform. But she got little attention.

At the same time, her candidacy was dragged down by Romney, whose popularity in Massachusetts fell as he explored a potential presidential candidacy, joking about Massachusetts and veering to the right on social issues.

"Her mentor clearly made the decision that his stakes in the presidential race were more important to him than his stakes in the gubernatorial position, and she paid a high price," said Stephen P. Crosby, who was chief of staff to then-acting governor Jane Swift.

And Romney had never given Healey the prominence that other lieutenant governors enjoyed.

"He made it clear that this was not a co-governor situation, and that's been tough for her," said Brian P. Lees, the Senate Minority Leader.

It was never tougher than in July, when the Big Dig crisis hit just as she was trying to establish her leadership credentials. After the tunnel collapse, Romney took charge, dominating every press conference, as Healey stood silently behind him. House Minority Leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. said he urged the Romney administration to give Healey a bigger role.

"I know that message was conveyed . . . that you need to get her up there as cogovernor," Jones said. "Whether you're speaking and she's drawing the chart on the board or what -- so it's clear they're in communication, they're on the same page."

That never happened. Healey strategists will not discuss their conversations with Romney's staff.

But they also said Healey's loyalty to Romney meant she would never criticize him. Indeed, she passed up a chance during a debate last month when invited to call on Romney to "cease and desist" from disparaging the state. "It was never an option," O'Brien said. "That is not who she is."

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