Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The race for governor.

It's Patrick's to lose.
by Kevin John Sowyrda

Little did we know that Irwin Allen, the Jedi Master of big screen disaster flicks in the 1970's, was back from the dead - literally - and prepping Attorney General Tom Reilly for last week's debate, which will be better remembered for who tanked than for who triumphed.

Clearly, Reilly must have been carefully tutored by the man who brought us such quintessentially 70's genre as "Earthquake," "The Towering Inferno," and "The Poseidon Adventure." The state's top elected Democrat began last week's Harvard hosted event by shaking the stage with some only-insiders-could-understand-it bomb tossing and was breathing fire shortly thereafter, doing a simply dandy job of turning off any soccer mom in sight. By the debate's sixty minute conclusion he had pretty much capsized, dead in the water with all compartments flooded. The only thing missing from the sad demise of this once powerful politician was the hefty Shelly Winters jumping into that oil slick so that Gene Hackman could get the remaining survivors to the engine room propeller shaft.

Not until last week did I think it conceivable that a man could finish fourth in a three way race. Fifty bucks says it happens next week. Don't forget, some people actually blank the top race on the ballot and I think the A.G. should be worried about the growing popularity of Mr. Blank in comparison to himself.

What was Reilly's strategy, so dissected these past many days by all of us? To be perfectly blunt, knowing some of the people affiliated with his campaign I find it almost inconceivable that any of them, with dreams of top, state jobs still dancing in their heads, would have advised Reilly to behave so recklessly and crass, so bitter and off message. I think Reilly pulled a Reilly. I think he got up on that stage and simply resented the fact that two guys who between them don't have a half his government experience seem poised to trounce him on Primary Day and dare to cheat him of what he actually perceives to be "his turn". I think it's possible that Reilly simply lost it, and let his gut do the talking while his mind and political sensibilities were put in a straight jacket by his own, very peripatetic psyche.

The consequences for Tom Reilly are quite significant. This was the first post Labor Day political event of the campaign. A lot of people were watching and a lot more read about it. For many voters it was their first, real impression of the candidates. What they saw and what they read about - that vital, first impression - was a cantankerous and irritable incumbent versus two other guys who conducted themselves with a good measure of class and dignity. Maybe there wasn't a clear winner, but there sure as Heaven was a clear loser.

Reilly's career is over and the only logical, political conclusion is that he should do what's necessary to stop the present bleeding so that his third place finish is not such a distant third that it is historically humiliating. However, I sense there's little he can do. In a matter of day's he'll be an afterthought in state political history. A Reilly campaign donor told me that morale at headquarters could not be lower. I sense there's about as much action there these final days as you'll find in Tom and Katie's bedroom.

Now for what matters. Their names are Gabrielli and Patrick. I say Gabrielli won last week's debate on the visual factors. He dwarfed his opponents, literally, was perfectly situated at near center stage, to the debate moderator's left, and he simply "looked" gubernatorial. But for my money, Patrick had some of the truly poignant moments and may be the real winner from last week on points of substance and ingenuity.

Take this moment for example. A question was put to the Democratic threesome about disaster response by whoever is the next governor. Reilly's answer was nonsensical, Gabrielli's was a tad week, but Patrick's is still resonating. He told people what he would not do, using as the perfect metaphor the surveying of Hurricane Katrina damage by President Bush from the comfort and distance of his Air force One.

Patrick said he'd be the chief executive who would get out and meet the people and comfort those suffering. Every person in that audience applauded Patrick's answer.

Another Patrick strategy which was brilliant - and one he should use a great deal more if he wins next week - was to associate himself with the late Senator Paul Tsongas, who represents the spirit of moderate, pro-business Democrats. Patrick was trying to fend off the bone breaking question of the night which came from WBUR's Bob Oates, the best and most solid journalist the debate had to offer. When Oates asked Patrick if he was too liberal for November voters, Patrick used the Tsongas principles respectfully and effectively. Quite frankly, I think he took the toughest question of the night and hit it out of the park without sweating for a moment.

So what do we look for in a matter of hours, when three careers of three famous people are on the line. First and foremost, watch the turnout. I say Patrick has mobilized battalions of volunteers who will get his people to the polls, whereas Gabrielli's campaign is solely an electronic one, powered by superior financial resources and scant foot soldiers. A moderate turnout favors Patrick, whereas an enormous turnout could be a positive bell weather for Gabrielli. Second and more specifically, watch the turnout not only in the urban areas, but in progressive suburbs like Newton, Cambridge, Brookline and Somerville. If turnout there is off the charts, Patrick can start to celebrate.

It's a tough race to call because the anxiety of voters is high given recent state scandals, making the atmosphere more volatile than usual. But if I had to bet the house, I'd put it on Patrick winning this one in a squeaker. He's just what the doctor ordered; the ultimate outsider who proved in the debate that his eloquence and intellect are more than up for the job of being governor.

For Gabrielli, there can still be one more run. If he loses Tuesday, watch for him to prepare for a Boston mayoral bid in 2009. It's what he should have done in '05.

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