Mass. Governor's Race a Contest of Firsts Democratic nominee Deval Patrick faces Republican Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey in the hard-fought race to be the next governor of Massachusetts. The Democrats have a substantial lead in their bid to take back the governor's mansion after 16 years of GOP rule, but Republicans have made some inroads with voters.
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Mass. Governor's Race a Contest of Firsts

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Mass. Governor's Race a Contest of Firsts

Mass. Governor's Race a Contest of Firsts

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

The historic state of Massachusetts is set to make history again next month. Voters there will probably elect either the state's first woman governor - that would be the current Lieutenant Governor, Kerry Healey, a Republican - or the state's first African-American governor, Democrat Deval Patrick. Mr. Patrick is currently leading in the polls, but voters seem less interested in history than traditional issues, like taxes and crime.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: Deval Patrick started this campaign with a lead so big even some Republicans strategists were privately calling the race over.

Mr. DEVAL PATRICK (Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate): I will win in November.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

SMITH: Patrick's decisive primary win put him nearly 40 points ahead of Kerry Healey, and only fueled buzz about Patrick as a rising national star. It looked like this poor kid from the South Side of Chicago, who used a prep school scholarship to catapult on to Harvard, a top civil rights post in the Clinton administration, and big jobs at Fortune 500 companies, might soon become a governor in a landslide.

But then, Lieutenant Governor Healey began to hammer Patrick for what she calls favoring criminals over their victims.

(Soundbite of political ad)

ANNOUNCER: A young Florida state trooper stops to help a stranded motorist. The driver, an escaped convict, kills the trooper with five shots.

(Soundbite of shooting)

SMITH: In a dark and grainy TV spot, an announcer points out how Patrick helped get a convicted cop killer off Death Row.

ANNOUNCER: Attorney Deval Patrick gets sentenced reduced. Now killer is eligible for parole. While lawyers have a right to defend admitted cop killers, do we really want one as our governor?

SMITH: Patrick stumbled in response to the attacks, spending days trying to explain his record and correct his own statements. Now his lead is still in the double digits, but it's about half of what it was. And for Massachusetts Democrats, like former governor and past presidential candidate Mike Dukakis, the attacks are all too familiar.

Mr. MICHAEL DUKAKIS (Former Massachusetts Governor): It's the same kind of thing that people ran against me. It's Willy Horton all over again.

SMITH: Dukakis says he learned the hard way what happens when you don't hit back hard and fast. And he says Patrick may be making the same mistake, letting Healey get away with casting him as too liberal and soft on crime.

Mr. DUKAKIS: So what he's got to do is toughen up his response. Because it turns out that if you say nothing and do nothing, sooner or later at least some people begin to believe it.

SMITH: Patrick's newest ad is just a bit more aggressive, casting Healey's attacks as a desperate attempt to change the subject.

(Soundbite of political ad)

ANNOUNCER: All they have left to offer are misleading negative ads.

SMITH: But Patrick's loss may not Healey's gain. Most Patrick defectors appear to be going into the undecided column or to the independent in the race, businessman Christy Mihos. Polls show many voters who agree with Healey on big things, like cutting taxes, are not supporting her, because of what even Republican consultant Todd Domke calls Healey's likeability problem.

Mr. TODD DOMKE (Republican Consultant): Kerry Healey has not been turning people on with her personality. Frankly, the Democrat has charisma. Deval Patrick has a very winning personality.

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, man.

Unidentified Man #2: Did you get what you needed?

Unidentified Man #3: Ah, yes. But (unintelligible)

SMITH: On the campaign trail, Patrick has a knack for ingratiating himself with reporters, and even more so with voters.

Mr. PATRICK: You know what? This is the part I love the best. Thanks for everything. Appreciate it.

SMITH: It's a stark contrast from Kerry Healey, who seems uncomfortable campaigning and almost wishing she wasn't.

HEATHER (Healey Supporter): Hi, Heather (unintelligible)

Ms. KERRY HEALEY (Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor): Oh, hi, Heather. Good to see you again. How are you?

HEATHER: Good, thanks. How about you?

Ms. HEALEY: I'm doing well. Hanging in there. Twenty-eight days. Yeah. Hi, how are you?

SMITH: Healey may also be hurt by her association with Governor Mitt Romney, who's lost support here since he's turned his attention to exploring a run for president. And while Romney gave Healey a huge break by choosing her to run as his lieutenant governor after she'd lost two races for state rep, Democratic consultant Dan Payne says Romney hurt Healey much more by too often keeping her on the sidelines with a non-speaking role while the governor took center stage.

Mr. DAN PAYNE (Democrat Consultant): She would be standing behind him in the background like a lamp. And I think it underscored the fact that she hasn't really distinguished herself at all since she's been lieutenant governor.

SMITH: The Massachusetts governor's race is high stakes for Republicans who've managed to hold the corner office in this blue state for the past 16 years. Healey is trying to convince voters they need her, as a check and balance against a legislature dominated by Democrats. But voters here may not be swayed by party, just as they seemed to be unmoved by the candidate's race or gender. There's not a lot of talk here about the prospect of electing the state's first female or African-American governor. And many see that as a good sign in a state still known for its troubled racial past and its old boy network controlling local politics.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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