In his first test as a candidate for governor, political newcomer Deval Patrick scored a sweeping victory at Democratic caucuses yesterday, trouncing Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, a two-term statewide office holder.
Delegate slates pledged to Patrick, the former top federal civil rights prosecutor and business executive, rolled up margins at local party meetings that will give him close to a 2-to-1 advantage over Reilly in the count of committed delegates, according to several Democratic Party strategists around the state.
With about 35,000 Democrats participating in local meetings around the state, Patrick was able to win easily in liberal strongholds such as Arlington, Newton, and Somerville and ran strong in several urban areas. Reilly even lost his home base Watertown, where his daughter lost a bid to become a delegate.
The results mean that Patrick and Reilly are both likely to win the 15 percent of delegates necessary to get on the ballot in September.
Reilly won more than 60 percent of the delegates in Boston, drawing on Mayor Thomas M. Menino's political operation, a Menino strategist said. In Lowell, where state Senator Steven C. Panagiotakos and US Representative Martin Meehan rallied support, Reilly won 49 delegates to Patrick's 6.
The caucus is the first step in a road that leads next to the June party convention, then to the Sept. 19 primary and, for the winner of the primary, the general election on Nov. 7. Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey is running on the Republican ticket, and Christy Mihos is deciding whether to run as a Republican or an independent.
''I've been independent minded, and the party establishment has problems with that," Reilly said in an interview after the caucus results were in, citing his position in favor of a tax rollback, charter schools, and MCAS testing. ''I did well considering that I stand up to the party on certain things."
Patrick, in an interview late yesterday, said his showing at the caucuses was ''a victory for the grass roots." But he downplayed expectations -- which came even from top Reilly aides -- that the results would give him a majority of support at the convention. He and Reilly need 15 percent of convention delegates to be placed on the September primary ballot.
''God only knows," said Patrick when asked if this ensured a convention endorsement. ''The whole system favors insiders. I just feel good we got ballot access."
The Watertown loss and other defeats reflect Reilly's strategy -- he did not spend money or other resources to woo the party's liberal rank and file and its special interest groups to win the convention. Still, the 63-year-old attorney general, who badly fumbled an attempt to find a lieutenant governor running mate last week, said he was pleased to win well more than the necessary 15 percent of the convention delegates. He attributed his lackluster showing to his decision to steer clear of the party's special interests.
According to his strategists, Reilly, who holds a strong lead over Patrick in the early polls of Democratic primary voters, is striving to avoid catering to the liberal bloc of the state party and to special-interest groups, which dominate the convention. Instead, he wants to strike a more moderate image that will play well in the general election in November, particularly to unaligned voters.
''It's important that, as a party, we nominate someone who can appeal to those independents," said state Senator Steven A. Baddour, Democrat of Methuen, after he helped to engineer's Reilly's sweep of delegates at his town caucus yesterday. ''Tom's that guy."
That strategy has perplexed some Democratic leaders, who feel Reilly, by ceding the convention endorsement and by bungling several recent incidents, has allowed Patrick to gain a foothold in the Democratic primary race.
''Tom Reilly's strength has never been in the grass roots and the caucuses," former state senator Warren Tolman of Watertown, a 2002 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said after the Watertown caucus results were announced. ''He's just not their cup of tea."
''But when you are running against a newcomer and you are the eight-year statewide office holder, there are expectations that you should be doing a lot better," Tolman said.
As Reilly has tried to run to the center, Patrick has spent a lot of time cultivating party activists, touting liberal positions. Still, Reilly holds a commanding lead in fund-raising, having accumulated close to $4 million while Patrick has just over $700,000 on hand.
About 35,000 Democrats held roughly 600 caucuses around the state yesterday, gathering in school gymnasiums, town halls, and community centers. The Democrats elected about 3,500 of the 5,300 delegates to this June's party convention.
Still hanging in the balance is about a third or less of the total total delegates, some who were elected yesterday but not committed to any candidate. Others are elected officials or ''add ons" to achieve racial and gender balance. A handful of caucuses take place today or later this week.
Yesterday's caucuses were the first significant measure of Patrick's appeal to the rank-and-file Democratic activists. As the first African-American gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts history, Patrick, a Milton resident who jumped unexpectedly into the race a year ago, has stirred a good deal of interest among party activists as he travels across the state.
His life story -- which centers around his making way from the hardscrabble South Side of Chicago to attend elite eastern schools and eventually to head the civil rights division in the Clinton Justice Department and later to serve as general legal counsel at Texaco and
The caucus results also were expected to provide some indication of how badly Reilly wounded himself last week by bungling his choice of a running mate. The evidence is mixed. In some urban wards, such as in Quincy and Malden, uncommitted labor delegates were selected. According to one Democratic leader, they will tend to lean toward Reilly, but are cautiously waiting to see if he can stabilize his campaign.
State Representative Marie St. Fleur, the candidate for lieutenant governor that Reilly chose on Tuesday, bowed out on Wednesday, the same day the Globe disclosed that she has had three delinquent tax debts in the last four years, including an April 2005 federal tax lien of $12,711 against her and her husband. Reilly acknowledged Thursday that he failed to closely examine St. Fleur's finances and said that ''politics are not my strong suit."
In the midst of the controversy, Patrick released information that he and his wife, Diane, had fallen behind in meeting payments on a $17,000 federal tax lien in 1996. A tax record says that the lien against Patrick and his wife was satisfied in March 1997.
Even where Reilly won, Democrats raised concerns over his candidacy. In Auburn, where about 50 Democrats met over coffee and homemade cake at Camp Gleason and heard a personal appeal from Reilly, the town's caucus elected nine delegates for the attorney general. But even there, people said he must work harder to energize his troops.
''He's had a rough January, and I think he's got a lot of work to do to not only get his elected delegates, but get his elected delegates as supporters. He has to get our passion behind his campaign," said Doreen Goodrich, who chairs the Auburn Democratic Town Committee.
A Patrick supporter at the Watertown caucus said Reilly's mishandling of the St. Fleur episode factored into his decision. ''I was not impressed with what happened in the last week," said Chuck Dickinson, 60.
Several voters praised Reilly's appeal to centrist voters, who could be key as Democrats try to win the governors' office after a 20-year drought. For example, he won Methuen, where voters praised his law enforcement background. ''It's pretty much a blue-collar town and he appeals to blue-collar people," said Dave Aufiero, 55, of Methuen. Some urban areas, such as Somerville, Brockton, and Salem, went overwhelmingly for Patrick, mainly because Reilly never fielded a slate.
Globe correspondents Emma Stickgold, Elizabeth Raftery, Michael Naughton, Stephanie Peters, and Heidi Rose Lamirande contributed to this report.