Same book, different pages

State Democrats are locked in a tight presidential battle, and Menino, Patrick may hold the keys

Email|Print| Text size + By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / January 27, 2008

Mayor Thomas M. Menino controls a muscular urban political machine that can churn out tens of thousands of votes. Governor Deval Patrick, with his exceptional skills as an orator, has a proven ability to inspire grass-roots support.

Usually, they are on the same page. But not on Super Tuesday.

When primary elections are decided in 22 states including Massachusetts Feb. 5, the outcome in the Bay State Democratic contest could very well hinge on how effective Menino and Patrick perform in competing roles.

The mayor, along with a long roster of leaders in the state Democratic establishment, is backing Senator Hillary Clinton. The governor, joined by an impressive list of well-known names, including Senator John Kerry, is stumping hard for Obama around the country and hopes to deliver Massachusetts for him.

The rivalry between the Massachusetts heavyweights reflects a broader split in a state that has been a reliable source of money and votes for Democratic presidential candidates for decades.

"I can't remember a time when Democrats have been so divided in a presidential campaign," said Phil Johnston, a veteran state party chairman who stepped down last year.

Johnston embodies the tough choices Democrats have made in choosing sides. He served as the regional head of the US Department of Health and Human Services in the Clinton era. But a sense that the country needed a new face trumped old loyalties, and he is backing Obama, whom he called "fresh and exciting."

"I think people want to turn the page on the Clintons and the Bushes," he said. As for his bucking the establishment, he quipped, "I've always been a rebel."

The outcome of the race could have consequences for those involved - and not just because a Democratic president could hand out a plum ambassadorship to a friend or two in Boston.

The political establishment will regard the outcome as a test of organizational might, a trial that could either strengthen or weaken a freshman governor still learning the ropes and a veteran mayor whose rivals are anxious to replace him.

Steve Grossman, a top Democratic fund-raiser who is backing Clinton, said the race in Massachusetts so far has been "highly competitive but not adversarial." But people here inevitably register tension when it gets high at the national level. Former State senator Jarrett Barrios, also a Clinton supporter, said Democrats are determined to unite behind the nominee, but "all my friends breathed a sigh of relief during the Las Vegas debate when the candidates made nice and moved on" from a highly charged argument about race (which later resumed in South Carolina).

Historically, this deep blue state's most important contribution to Democratic presidential politics has been to serve as a king-sized ATM - or to add names such as Kerry, Tsongas, Dukakis, and Kennedy to the ballot. Massachusetts has typically voted too late in the primary season to matter much. But this year, the state's importance has been elevated.

At the urging of Secretary of State William Galvin, the Legislature late last year voted to move the election to Feb. 5, the same day as 21 other states, making it part of a huge wave of primaries that could determine the outcome of a closely contested race. Only four other states have more Democratic delegates, and two of those have hometown favorites - Clinton is the senator from New York; Obama is the senator from Illinois - so they are less likely to be hotly contested.

Which means Democrats are smack in the middle of the biggest disagreement their party has had in a long time.

Patrick, who shares with his friend Obama a similar message of hope and unity over ideology and partisanship, has become one of Obama's most important national surrogates. He has traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire for the candidate, and he spent last weekend stumping for him in South Carolina.

A key question on the home front, however, is whether Patrick can persuade his massive grass-roots organization to become as cohesive and motivated around Obama's candidacy as it was about his own a year ago. Certainly he does not have a lock on his supporters; Representative Kay Khan of Newton, for example, was one of Patrick's early legislative endorsers, but she is now a passionate Clinton volunteer.

"I just find her very engaging and smart and extremely knowledgeable about the issues," she said.

The presidential race may also be perceived as another battleground between the governor and the Legislature, after more than a year of struggling between them for the upper hand. Both House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and Senate President Therese Murray, who are hardly perfect allies at the State House, are backing Clinton - as are scores of lawmakers.

Menino, who became mayor the same year Bill Clinton was inaugurated, bonded with the Clintons during the 1990s and even stayed at the White House twice. He rhapsodizes about Bill Clinton's community policing program, and Hillary Clinton's interest in urban issues.

He fielded political supporters in Greater Manchester in New Hampshire, which supplied a hefty share of the votes that put Clinton ahead of Obama in that state, and he is now playing a key role in organizing her campaign in Massachusetts and recruiting undecided local leaders here.

"Hillary is the candidate who has the experience, who has the depth, who has the ability to run this country from day one," he said. "She knows the issues."

But others at City Hall have sided with Obama, including City Councilor-at-Large Michael Flaherty, who is eyeing a mayoral run.

No clear rules appear to have determined who chose what side in this race. Though Clinton appears to have picked up more support from old friends in the Legislature than Obama, some local political figures have thrown old loyalties out the window.

Alan Solomont, a close friend of Grossman's, and who raised money for Bill Clinton for years, is the regional finance chairman for Obama.

"I think people were quite surprised, but . . . I asked myself the question, 'What kind of leader are the American people looking for in the next president?' " he said. "There's a clear indication that this is a change election. . . . That's the premise of Obama's candidacy."

For other local powerbrokers, however, experience trumped ideological differences, or at least perceived ones. Obama is often cast as the liberal candidate in the race, probably because of his long opposition to the war.

But Barrios, a Democrat from Cambridge who was widely regarded as a leader of the party's progressive wing, is a firm supporter of Clinton, whom he views as the most accomplished and experienced for the job.

And US Representative James McGovern, a progressive Democrat who in 2005 became the first congressman who dared to back Patrick's out-of-nowhere candidacy for governor, is helping Clinton's campaign.

"McGovern's a very loyal guy," said a neutral Democratic operative. "When he's with you, he's with you, and he delivers."

But, for all the talk about the grass roots and the machines, it remains unclear exactly who is going to do all this get-out-the-vote work for the Democratic bigwigs the weekend before the vote. It is, as City Councilor John Tobin noted, Super Bowl weekend.

Tobin, the father of a toddler and an infant, said his wife last month gave him the choice of spending two days in Iowa campaigning (his candidate, Joe Biden, has now dropped out of the race), or attending the game.

"I said, 'I love you, Senator Biden, but I'm going to Phoenix,' " he said.

(Correction: Because of an editing error, a graphic with a story in yesterday's City & Region section about state Democrats being divided in their support of the presidential candidates misidentified Councilor Michael F. Flaherty as president of the Boston City Council. Maureen Feeney is the City Council president.)

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