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ADRIAN WALKER

Strange missteps

Maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to just skip the whole running-mate thing.

After all, people ran for governor of Massachusetts without running mates for years. And it's brought nothing but trouble for Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, whose campaign is reeling.

Representative Marie St. Fleur's fall is stunning in its suddenness, a mere 27 hours from announcement to withdrawal. But, bad as it is for her, it's worse for Reilly. Not many single moves leave such a trail of wreckage, apparently including a broken promise to Mayor Timothy P. Murray of Worcester and a weird pseudo-courtship of Christopher Gabrieli.

I can't help feeling sympathy for St. Fleur. For all her missteps, she is smart, dynamic and independent, all qualities that have served her well in the State House. She has been a strong voice for her community.

As a representative, she has been willing to fight anyone to get what she wants, as the other members of the Black Legislative Caucus will attest, and has been willing to adopt unpopular positions because she believes in them. On Clean Elections, redistricting, bilingual education, and in-state tuition for immigrant students, she has been willing to sacrifice popularity for conviction. That's a record she'll never have to apologize for.

The same can't be said, obviously, of her personal financial quagmire, littered as it is with tax liens, foreclosures, and a lawsuit. She has paid dearly for all of that. But a person is more than the sum of her mistakes, and it would be too bad if St. Fleur is remembered solely as the person who crashed and burned in a lieutenant governor's race.

I've never been convinced that voters care that much about running mates, and I don't think it matters whom Reilly runs with, as he seeks the governor's office.

Judgment, however, is another matter. And the past few days have raised serious questions about Reilly's. He has appeared alternately indecisive, manipulative, and impulsive. Those are hardly good qualities in a candidate, much less a governor.

It's great to have a gut feeling that someone is the right partner for you. But you can't run a campaign with your gut, especially when your political instincts are as shaky as Reilly's.

It boggles the mind that a prosecutor, spurred on by two other former prosecutors, Ralph Martin and Wayne Budd, would nominate anyone for the sewer commission without thoroughly checking them out. A suspicious view of human nature is practically part of the basic emotional equipment of the job.

Reilly's status as the presumptive Democratic front-runner seems like more of a presumption by the day. One of his key supporters, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, hailing the St. Fleur nomination a few days ago, proclaimed his candidate ''as boring as American bread." Reilly has clearly failed to ignite the passions of the Democratic faithful. Sure, he has a lot of money, but on the eve of the caucuses that kick off the real campaign, his campaign is hobbling.

Who would you rather be this morning, Tom Reilly or Deval Patrick? Would you rather be the candidate who has spent the past month explaining away mistakes or the candidate quietly building an organization?

If the St. Fleur nomination was partly about countering Patrick's appeal to minorities and liberals, then obviously it backfired. But the damage goes beyond that: The image of one's campaign as a gang that can't shoot straight hurts you with all voters.

There's no telling what the future holds for Marie St. Fleur. Much admired by her constituents, she could successfully run for reelection, I suspect. Higher office is clearly out of reach at present and maybe permanently. Still, assuming there are no new revelations, she may have already suffered the worst that can happen to her politically.

More intriguing is the short-term future of Tom Reilly. Four weeks ago, even four days ago, the Democratic primary looked as if it was his to lose. Suddenly, he looks as if he might do exactly that.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

RELATED CONTENT:
 Democrats jumped gun on Gabrieli (Boston Globe, 2/4/06)
 Reilly's pick withdraws from race (Boston Globe, 2/2/06)
 Patrick divulges 1996 tax lien (Boston Globe, 2/2/06)
 Reilly picks St. Fleur for campaign (Boston Globe, 1/31/06)
STATEMENTS:  Tom Reilly (2/1/06)  Marie St. Fleur (2/1/06)
COMMENTARY:
 BRIAN MCGRORY: Political malpractice (Boston Globe, 2/3/06)
 SCOT LEHIGH: A taxing week for Democrats (Boston Globe, 2/3/06)
 ADRIAN WALKER: Strange missteps (Boston Globe, 2/2/06)
 JOAN VENNOCHI: Reilly's judgment is suddenly suspect (Boston Globe, 2/2/06)
 GLOBE EDITORIAL: Encumbered candidates (Boston Globe, 2/2/06)
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