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Adrian Walker

Crunch time for Patrick

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / September 27, 2010

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When Deval Patrick took the stage at Titus Sparrow Park in the South End Saturday, it felt like a second kickoff event for his campaign. And no wonder, because the race for governor has undergone what feels like a major reset in the past few days.

Patrick never had a big lead, but on Sunday a Boston Globe poll reported that it has shrunk to nothing.

Patrick is a sunny man for decidedly cloudy times, and he unveiled a new slogan last weekend: “Optimism and Effort.’’ It was his optimism that lifted him out of poverty on the South Side of Chicago, he said, and effort that allowed him to make the most of his opportunities and become a success.

His crowd seemed to go for it, but Patrick is clearly far from secure. No one expected him to cruise to reelection, but he enters the fourth quarter tied, after sitting on a small lead for much of the game. Thirty-seven days before Election Day, this race could easily be won by either Patrick or his Republican opponent, Charlie Baker.

Patrick stepped up his mild criticisms of his opponents Saturday, accusing them of seizing on well-founded economic anxiety to create a climate of fear. He charged that they had done nothing, and had opposed the bold initiatives that have supposedly made Massachusetts first in education, first in health care, and first in job growth.

“Charlie Baker and Tim Cahill opposed every decision that delivered those results,’’ Patrick said. And later: “Their solution to everything is to cut taxes.’’

It is a political truism that when incumbents run for reelection, the campaign is essentially about them. If people like them and support their policies they will win, and if enough people oppose them they will lose, almost regardless of the opposition.

Baker has taken to telling voters repeatedly in recent debates that if they think everything is fine on Beacon Hill, if they really believe that the state is on the right track, then by all means they should “vote for the governor or the treasurer.’’ He has staked his campaign on anti-Patrick fervor. It’s not about selling himself; it’s about persuading voters to abandon Patrick.

Independent candidate Timothy P. Cahill is doggedly marching on, despite what could fairly be called an implosion. Two of his top advisers quit last week, making the startling assertion that they had come to realize that Cahill could not win, and that his presence in the race was helping Patrick.

Baker’s task over the next six weeks is simple: Continue to pound the message that Patrick is a tax-and-spend liberal, that his so-called reforms have been dinky, that everything good is down and everything bad is up.

The choices facing Patrick are subtler and more interesting. Thus far in the debates, the governor has serenely floated above the fray, letting Baker and Cahill trade barbs while he kind of agrees with everyone, thinks no one has a corner on good ideas, believes we can all disagree without being disagreeable. But at some point, does he have to fight fire with fire?

He shrugged off the recent polls, and disputed the idea that the attacks of his opponents are hurting him. “The polls are all over the place,’’ he said. “You can’t be focused on that. I’m trying to govern. I’m trying to lead.’’

The man who won on hope is now staking reelection on optimism. But voters increasingly seem pessimistic, worried, anxious, and, yes, angry. With barely a month to go, it seems like optimism itself is up for judgment.

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

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