Can Patrick Hang On?

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  September 29, 2010

They may seem inappropriate, though, to the bulk of voters who see little reason for such can-do optimism right now.

Still, Patrick is using these themes to make an important argument, aimed at the heart of the Democratic-leaning electorate. He is suggesting — sometimes explicitly — that during this time of shrinking resources, the commonwealth needs a compassionate Democrat to protect government's good functions. Unleashing a fiscally conservative Republican like Baker — who lacks "values," Patrick has charged — would lead to a harsh, cruel government that abandons its people.

This makes the election a choice, between Patrick's humane approach, and Baker's cold-hearted one — rather than a yes/no referendum on whether Patrick has earned re-election. "This campaign is trying very hard to highlight the choice, absolutely," says one Patrick insider.

Consider that the Globe/UNH and other polls say that 55 percent of Massachusetts voters approve of Barack Obama's performance as president. That would seem to indicate that there are plenty of voters who are down on Patrick, but when forced to compare would prefer a governor like him to a governor like Baker. That probably includes those two African-American women from Dorchester, who say they haven't learned enough about Baker, or Cahill, to know who they might end up voting for.


Attacking, carefully
Patrick faces another conundrum as he tries to sway those swing voters against Baker: he has denounced and foresworn negative campaigning, and engaging in attacks would work against his upbeat, optimistic message.

But it has to be done, despite the risks, because conventional wisdom holds that an unpopular incumbent can win only if voters are more afraid of the alternative. Patrick would love to have a Christine O'Donnell or Rand Paul to run against; instead, he faces a smart, competent candidate who holds generally moderate or even liberal views. Bay State Republicans and Democrats alike have long said that Baker's strength as a candidate in this race is that he is so blandly professional, he would be hard to paint as anything other than a safe alternative.

Patrick walks the tightrope by trashing Baker while insisting that he is merely pointing out contrasting visions — he chastised his South End audience for booing Baker's name, before going on to accuse Baker of negativity, whipping up fear and anger, divisiveness, belittling others, talking rather than acting, and opposing "every single choice that has brought us where we are."

Patrick also leaves the most aggressive attacks to third-party groups — like the one that recently ran ads tying Baker to the Big Dig — and to Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray. At a press conference in Worcester announcing the endorsement of the Building Trades Council, Patrick handled a question about the Big Dig tactfully; when he finished, Murray dove in, accusing Baker of lying to the public and engaging in a cover-up.

And Baker himself has assisted immensely, appearing ill-tempered and petulant throughout the campaign so far. Many political observers say that his campaign ads, debate performances, and other public appearances have only made Baker seem haughty and out of touch, particularly on the issue of jobs. Baker's recent commercial, promising to fire 5000 state workers, shocked the Quincy job-search club that Patrick visited. "Those are jobs we're hoping to get," one woman said.

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