The X factor

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  November 24, 2009

A Boston Globe poll, from this past Sunday, may show the first signs of it; Capuano has garnered more than 20 percent, well ahead of Pagliuca and Khazei.

Capuano campaign manager Roger Lau was Tsongas's campaign manager for that 2007 race. He was on the hold-the-lead side then, and is on the come-from-behind side now. He also sees similarities — although, he says, "this race seems even shorter and faster."

But Coakley needn't worry yet. In Tsongas's case, there was definite resistance to her candidacy — she was seen by many as inexperienced, unfamiliar with much of the district, and running primarily as the widow of the late Senator Paul Tsongas.

Coakley has no such strikes against her. On the other hand, she has been running such a cautious front-runner's campaign, some observers say she has failed to give people a reason to vote for her. That could leave a lot of voters persuadable, if the other candidates can take advantage.

Strong allies
To take advantage, Lau says, the other three candidates will have to find and target those persuadable Bay Staters likely to show up for a December primary.

That's a much more challenging assignment in a statewide race than it was in Tsongas's congressional run, he adds. Plus, Capuano has been stuck in Washington for much of the campaign, taking away from his time on the trail. He has tried to make up for that with more than 20 "Tele-Town Halls," to go along with 50 in-person "Open Mike" events — all, says Lau, targeted to invitees identified as likely voters who are undecided.

Lau believes that Capuano has a significant advantage, even over Coakley, in identifying those people, thanks to the allies he has picked up. Those include labor organizations with large-scale political-outreach experience, including unions representing teachers, firefighters, Verizon technicians, and letter carriers.

But Coakley's campaign has many of those same organizational strengths, argues Coakley campaign spokesperson Alex Zaroulis. "The reality is, we're the only ones who have run a statewide campaign." Coakley also has plenty of powerful elected officials helping throughout Massachusetts, as well as key labor organizations like the SEIU.

Khazei and Pagliuca don't have those endorsers and institutional advantages. Khazei hopes to make up for that with an aggressive grassroots organization, which will have "hundreds and hundreds" of volunteers canvassing in the final weekends, says Denison.

Pagliuca, on the other hand, is relying on money. He has already spent more than $5 million on advertising, and has also invested heavily in outsourced phone banking and other field operations typically handled by volunteers. Much of those efforts may be wasted on non-voting viewers, but observers say they've been effective in raising Pagliuca's name recognition, and associating him in people's minds with the issues of jobs, the economy, and health care. Some even say Pagliuca's efforts may have laid enough groundwork to give him a chance at emerging as the top challenger to Coakley.

One thing Pagliuca hasn't done with those ads is directly criticize the front-runner. Nor has Capuano. Neither seems eager to be the first to go negative — but that may change in the last seven days, when the need to make up ground often means the gloves come off. Zaroulis promises that, if they do, Coakley will be ready to respond quickly.

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