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Adrian Walker

A telling test of the waters

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / June 28, 2010

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“Another great poll showing momentum for change!’’

That was the Twitter reaction of the Charlie Baker campaign yesterday to a Boston Globe poll that has him surging to second place in the governor’s race. For the record, he was at 31 percent, seven percentage points behind Governor Deval Patrick.

The results actually are decent news for Baker. Of course, it’s not surprising when a candidate gets a bump out of $2 million in television ads thrashing his opponents. Baker’s ad blitz (greatly aided by attack ads funded by the Republican Governors Association) has seriously damaged the campaign of Treasurer Tim Cahill, who has tumbled 9 points, according to the poll.

A public opinion survey at this state of a campaign is primarily a benchmark, not a predictor of outcome. But the poll suggests that although Patrick leads the pack, he is not having an easy time reconstructing the support that carried him to victory four years ago.

It’s been clear for ages that Patrick won’t get anywhere near the showing he posted then. But even factoring in diminished expectations, having the backing of 38 percent of likely voters is a fairly terrible showing for a sitting governor. He is fortunate that his public standing fell so far last winter that even bad results now look good by comparison.

Baker has devoted an astonishing amount of money and energy in his bid to run Cahill out of the race and challenge Patrick one-on-one.

But there still isn’t a lot of evidence that Cahill supporters are flocking to Baker. They seem to be split between the Baker and Patrick camps, with a lot of them remaining undecided.

One myth the poll may put to rest is the idea that anyone cares about state conventions. They are for the media and a relatively small group of hardcore political junkies, period. Patrick got rave reviews for his convention performance, but that doesn’t register in the polls. Most people just aren’t swayed by a staged event that barely affects the race.

Baker’s “surge’’ — a generous term for a candidate whose support is in the low 30 percent range — is mostly about heightened name recognition. It doesn’t change the fact that he is still in need of a message, as opposed to a slogan. But if he can continue to pound home the idea that Beacon Hill is chronically financially irresponsible, a huge group of voters is ready to listen. He clearly has a path to victory in an election that may be won with considerably less than 50 percent of the vote.

Of course, this is the first time Patrick has had to run as an incumbent, and predictably it’s a lot harder than his last race. Voters are frustrated; though the state has recently added jobs, most people aren’t seeing any real economic improvement. They wonder what government can really deliver, no matter who runs it.

Tellingly, some of the achievements Patrick considers his most important barely registered with the people who were polled. While Beacon Hill pats itself on the back for ethics reform and transportation reform, people standing on T platforms and watching disgraced former powerbrokers prepare for trial ask, “What reform?’’ Patrick aides say he has a “great story to tell’’ about his time in office. But it isn’t resonating yet.

Although people close to Cahill insist that he will never abandon the race, it’s getting harder and harder to see how he recovers from his tailspin. He chose not to respond to the withering attacks he has taken, saving his money for some blitz in September, or even later. But at the rate he’s taking on water, a few ads three months from now may not make much difference.

As this puzzling race grinds on, only two things are really clear. One is that Patrick is plainly vulnerable. The other is that his opponents haven’t figured out how to exploit his weaknesses. The voters are waiting for a reason to believe, but they haven’t yet heard one from any of the candidates.

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

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