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Poll finds Patrick and Reilly running even among Democrats

Political newcomer Deval Patrick was running even with Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly among Democratic primary voters in a recent poll, a sign that Reilly's political missteps have cost him in the race for the party's gubernatorial nomination.

The survey of 400 likely primary voters, conducted over the past week by the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, indicated that 40 percent of Democrats supported Reilly and 40 percent backed Patrick, with 20 percent undecided. The finding is in sharp contrast to Reilly's strong lead in a similar poll taken last September when he led Patrick by a 49 percent to 18 percent margin. The poll did not include a potential three-way race with wealthy businessman Chris Gabrieli, who is also mulling a run for governor.

Reilly's political problems also showed up in a trial heat against Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, the early favorite to win the GOP gubernatorial nomination. In a sample of 550 registered voters, Reilly and Healey were in a statistical dead heat, with him getting 43 percent to her 42 percent. That is a marked change from the strong lead he held over Healey in a similar matchup in a September UMass poll when he was 25 percentage points ahead of her. She officially announced her candidacy last week, as the polling began.

In another general election match-up, Healey and Patrick were in a statistical dead heat, with Patrick receiving 40 percent and Healey getting 38 percent.

But the poll indicated that Healey's candidacy would be hurt if businessman Christy Mihos, who has been courting Republicans to challenge her in the Sept. 19 primary, decides to run as an independent in the general election. In a three-way race, the poll found that 36 percent of those surveyed backed Reilly, 30 percent supported Healey, and 17 percent favored Mihos. If Patrick were the Democratic nominee, the poll found him receiving 34 percent, Healey 34 percent, and Mihos 12 percent.

One piece of good news for the attorney general was that the voters' views of him have stayed steady. Some 53 percent of those polled viewed him favorably while 29 percent gave him an unfavorable rating. In September, 56 percent rated him favorably and 22 percent unfavorably.

''This has been a very tough stretch for Reilly and he has definitely taken a trim," said Lou DiNatale, director of the university's Center for Economic and Civic Opinion. ''He allowed his Democratic opponent to get into the race and Kerry Healey has emerged as a formidable contender."

''Still, it is not a knockout blow," DiNatale said, noting Reilly's general popularity. ''He has plenty of time to push those numbers back."

The poll also found that a November ballot initiative to fund healthcare reform with a cigarette tax increase and tax on employers who do not provide healthcare had support of 69 percent of those surveyed, while 30 percent opposed the idea. Backers of the measure say they will go forward if lawmakers on Beacon Hill fail to come through with a bill that would extend health coverage to the uninsured.

Both the sample of likely Democratic voters and the larger sample of 550 registered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent. The poll was taken Feb. 7 through Feb. 14.

Patrick's emergence as a major challenger to Reilly may also stem from his strong showing in the Feb. 4 Democratic caucuses to elect some 3,000 delegates to the June 4 convention. Patrick swept the caucuses, winning about two-thirds of the delegates who were elected that day, according to figures from both campaigns.

The poll was taken a week after Reilly tried to form a ticket with state Representative Marie St. Fleur as his lieutenant governor running mate. She had to drop out within 24 hours after the Globe disclosed she had failed to meet her federal income tax obligations and was not paying off her $40,000 in student loans. Reilly and his campaign had failed to investigate her background or her financial issues.

The episode also shook up some of his senior political advisers who felt they had put together a deal for Gabrieli to run as his lieutenant governor running mate. The misstep occurred several weeks after Reilly was heavily criticized for making a call last fall to the Worcester district attorney who was handling a fatal accident involving two Southborough teenage sisters.

Gabrieli, the lieutenant governor nominee in 2002 who spent $5 million of his own money on the campaign, would have been a major financial resource for the Reilly campaign

The poll results indicated Reilly was hurt by his handling of the St. Fleur decision. Some 47 percent of those surveyed said they were ''very" familiar with Reilly's failure to research St. Fleur's background and the uproar over her failure to pay taxes and debts. Another 34 percent said they were somewhat aware of the reports.

Fifty-six percent said the St. Fleur episode made it less likely that they would vote for Reilly, while 35 percent said the episode would have no effect.

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