Almost 6,000 Massachusetts Democrats are heading to Worcester this weekend to whittle down the list of competitors vying for the chance to face-off with Republican Mitt Romney in November's gubernatorial race.
In recent weeks, each candidate has been hustling for delegate votes, with rumors swirling of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing. Though no campaign will reveal how many votes it has sewn up, a few predictions can be fairly safely made.
It takes support from 15 percent of the delegates to make it to the ballot in September. That's a tall order for a few Democratic hopefuls, but several can expect a little help from Boston Mayor Tom Menino and his cabal of 300 delegates, whom Menino is expected to divide among those candidates he believes have been good friends to Boston.
State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien and State Senate President Thomas Birmingham each have a solid third of the delegates and are certain to make the September primary ballot. O'Brien, who would be Massachusetts' first elected woman governor, may throw some of her delegates to her male rivals, however; some in her camp believe the more men on the ballot, the better. Birmingham has the support of most of his Senate colleagues, as well as several major unions. What is uncertain is which one of them will amass the 51 percent of votes needed for the endorsement.
Former national party chairman Steve Grossman, who has spent over $1 million of his personal fortune, has called in a lot of chits from his DNC days, exacting promises of support for at least one ballot. There is a lot of good will for Grossman, though he lags in the polls.
Which brings us to Robert Reich. The former Labor secretary jumped into the Democratic fray late, but his strength has surprised both his opponents and political observers. He has been endorsed by former presidential candidate Bill Bradley, and has been helped with fund-raising and organization by associates of Sen. Ted Kennedy, suggesting to some observers that Kennedy is quietly supporting Reich.
Reich, of course, has another high-profile politician with whom he is connected, but he would probably be wise not to drop former boss Bill Clinton's name. Reich has been officially banished from the Friends of Bill list since writing a tell-all memoir about his days in the Clinton White House. Steve Grossman ran the DNC for part of Mr. Clinton's time in office, and has been distributing a brochure chock full of hosannas from the former president. There are a lot of Clinton loyalists among the Massachusetts Democratic party faithful, and Grossman likely has an edge over the rest of the field.
Reich is expected to get close to the magic 15 percent and his advisers say he will make a powerful "Kennedy-esque" (read Bob Shrum-esque) speech. Warren Tolman, who is running his long-shot campaign as the "Clean Elections" candidate is having a hard time amassing enough delegates to continue to September's lightning round.
Thus far, the Democrats seem to be playing a game of liberal one-upmanship, battling over which candidate boasts the best lefty bona fides. Trumpeting one's liberalism is a prerequisite for winning the Democratic primary in Massachusetts. But with only seven weeks between the primary and general elections, there will be little time to repair the wounds from a bloody primary, particularly against a candidate as well-financed as the GOP's Romney.
Democrats are hopeful that they will pick up the Massachusetts governorship, which they have not held since Michael Dukakis left office in 1990. But with Romney coasting through the summer with no GOP opponent, and with the Democratic hopefuls beating each other up through September, Republicans, who had written the state off as a lost cause when acting-Governor Jane Swift appeared to be the candidate, are seeing reasons for real optimism. Romney has given Democrats nightmares before. In 1994, he put a real fright into Ted Kennedy, forcing the entrenched senior senator into a tough reelection battle. Kennedy eventually won easily, but Romney gave him a few tough moments.
But first things first. The eventual Democratic candidate has to make it through round one, the state party convention, where the festivities will kick off on Friday evening. Sen. John Kerry will deliver the keynote address (facing tough competition from the Boston Celtics who go up against the New Jersey Nets at the same time). On Saturday morning, the candidates deliver their 20-minute speeches: O'Brien speaks first, followed by Birmingham, Tolman, Grossman and Reich. Balloting is scheduled to begin at 12:30 p.m. and could last well into the early evening.
With all the vote swapping and wheeling and dealing, this is one they'll talk about for a long time to come.
By Susan Semeleer