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The battle for votes in swing towns

Healey, Patrick camps stress pocketbook issues



Call them the cubicle captives. They are the wage slaves who support the Route 128 technology belt, but do not share in management's perks or paychecks.

They are the folks who live in communities like Billerica, Burlington, Stoneham, and Woburn. Their median household income is about $60,000, and they have been besieged by higher property taxes, price spikes in gasoline, and fees for after- school programs. They are getting by, but they are not necessarily getting ahead.

And they are the voters Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey will have to capture if she is going to succeed her boss and take over the Commonwealth's corner office. She and Democratic candidate Deval L. Patrick are aggressively targeting these swing towns by stressing cost-of-living issues, though their campaign methods differ widely.

According to a Globe analysis of the Boston suburbs, voters in these areas are the soccer moms and the NASCAR dads of the 2006 governor's race. Residents in communities like Lowell, Methuen, and Tewksbury were twice as likely to support either Christopher Gabrieli or Thomas F. Reilly than Patrick in the Democratic primary. For these voters, Reilly's union credentials and Gabrieli's bean-counter demeanor, along with his succinct message of fiscal conservatism, resonated.

With both those candidates now out of the race, the cubicle captives will have to cross party lines en masse for Healey to overcome her huge deficit in the polls.

Her strategy to date: Tag Patrick as a tax-and-spend liberal in the towns where those words strike fear — much the same way Mitt Romney went after Shannon O'Brien in 2002.

In Boxborough, Carlisle, Concord, Harvard, and Lexington, the five communities in the Globe Northwest circulation area in which Patrick was strongest in the primary, the 1999 median household income was nearly $104,000, according to US Census data.

In Gabrieli's strongholds, the average income was $68,000. And in the communities where Reilly polled the best, the average income was $58,000.

"For those towns, people tend to vote their pocketbooks," said Richard Padova, a professor of government at Northern Essex Community College. "They are feeling the effects of the economy."

Taxes, healthcare, and education top these voters' lists, Padova said, and these are issues on which Healey and Patrick are focusing in an effort to attract supporters in those communities.

To reach these voters, the Healey campaign is using a sophisticated computer database to target Republicans, conservative Democrats, and unenrolled voters. She and her running mate, Reed Hillman, also have been holding "town hall meetings" in the swing communities like Lowell and Billerica, where she repeats her plan to roll back the state income tax and require that Proposition 2 1/2 override votes occur on regular election days. She also doesn't miss a chance to paint Patrick as someone who would raise taxes.

"When Deval Patrick meets with Democratic insiders, change can only mean one thing — higher taxes and more wasteful spending," Healey said at a meeting at Sal's Pizzeria in Lawrence last month.

When Patrick's 27-point lead was announced in a poll last week, Healey said she would spend the remainder of the campaign highlighting her specific plans to make the state more affordable for families.

That message convinced Methuen resident Christian Papalia, a 41-year-old limousine driver. Papalia helped Gabrieli carry Methuen in the Democratic primary. His reason: He liked Gabrieli's fiscally conservative philosophy. He would have voted for Gabrieli over Healey in the general election, but said he intends to vote for Healey.

"I think Patrick would have to raise taxes because he's proposing all of these social programs," said Papalia at a Methuen Starbucks. "The fees and taxes out here are already ridiculous."

Patrick, on the other hand, is relying on the old-fashioned Democratic machine to get out the vote. D.J. Beauregard, a Patrick volunteer in the Methuen canvass, said his organization has been knocking on doors every Saturday to hand out campaign literature stressing Patrick's plans to tackle healthcare costs and to roll back property taxes by restoring more state aid to communities.

"There has to be a human connection," Beauregaurd said. "You have to engage the voters and tell them why Patrick is the best candidate for the state."

Independent candidate Christy Mihos, meanwhile, is relying on much the same strategy by appealing to voters' perception of waste on Beacon Hill. His Proposition 1 would dramatically increase local aid overnight and freeze tax assessments until the property is sold. Jeremy Mullen, Mihos's director of field operations, said that message is echoing in towns like Billerica.

Meanwhile, Healey's attacks on Patrick as soft on crime appear to have backfired, according to the latest polls.

The rate of violent crime in the northwest suburbs is about one-third of that in Boston. But it's the perception of danger — and not the actual danger — that shapes concern, said Jack McDevitt, a criminologist at Northeastern University.

In the 34 communities covered by Globe NorthWest — an area with a population about a third greater than that of Boston — there were a combined 24 murders in 2003 and 2004, compared with 100 in the same years in Boston, according to State Police statistics.

Likewise, there were 3,040 aggravated assaults in the 34 communities during 2003 and 2004, compared with 8,272 in Boston.

Despite this relative safety, Healey has compelled voters to reevaluate Patrick's record on crime.

"I don't like the way Kerry Healey has attacked Patrick, but she's also prompted me to take a second look at Deval and he seems soft on crime," said David McNeal, 57, a Dracut resident who voted for Reilly in the primary and said he is leaning toward Mihos.

What Healey doesn't have in her favor are Romney's coattails, said Jeffrey Gerson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. The national backlash against Republicans in Washington has repelled voters from the GOP, even if the race isn't national, he said. Then there's the issue of Romney's record on the economy.

"When all these fees are going up and then Romney says he didn't raise taxes, people feel that's disingenuous, and that opens the door for Patrick," Gerson said.

State Representative Charles A. Murphy, a Burlington Democrat, said his town is moderate to conservative and usually votes for Republican governors. But this time, Healey just isn't "getting any traction," and voters seemed to be OK supporting Patrick, although, Murphy said, "he's been intensely vague" about his plans as governor.

Karin Cronin, who lives in Reading, a town in which Patrick won narrowly in the primary, said her taxes have jumped about $2,000 since Romney took office. "I don't think there's anybody in state government fighting for the towns."

Cronin voted for Gabrieli in the primary, but even though she typically supports a Republican for governor, she said she will be voting for Patrick.

Bill Giarusso, a retired firefighter from Methuen, has a similar track record of voting for Republican governors — but not this time. Romney failed to deliver on his promise of economic growth and cutting taxes, Giarusso said. The reality of those taxes hit home when their daughter took the bar exam, for which the fee had just doubled to $800.

"Romney didn't deliver," Giarusso said, adding that Healey is "part of his administration, so I don't trust her."

Douglas Belkin can be reached at dbelkin@globe.com and Russell Contreras can be reached at rcontreras@globe.com.

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