It was the second week of October and Kerry Healey had launched a scorching new attack ad, highlighting Deval Patrick's support for rapist Benjamin LaGuer. Polls showed she was cutting into Patrick's lead.
Democratic Party leaders' advice to Patrick was blunt: respond in kind or face defeat. Those urging him to attack Healey included Michael Dukakis and John F. Kerry, who saw their presidential hopes collapse when they failed to fight back. One party leader suggested Patrick air an attack ad taking aim at a state tax break Healey's husband received
But Patrick would not budge. He told the party leaders he was confident he could withstand Healey's attacks because he had established an unusual bond with voters, in part by eschewing such tactics. If he tampered with that relationship, it would destroy his candidacy.
His gamble paid off. Healey's ads backfired and his lead over his GOP rival began rebounding. Her unfavorable rating shot up 10 percentage points to more than 50 percent, a death knell for any candidate.
"It was one of the most amazing things I have seen in politics," said Democratic Party Chair Phil Johnston. "I would even say it was an act of singular political bravery such as I have not witnessed."
Patrick's willingness to shelve the advice of experienced political figures underscores his unconventional approach to politics. It also reveals a key part of the strategy that lifted him from obscurity and allowed him to accomplish what no one has done in modern Massachusetts history: enter the field for governor having never held, or even run for, public office, and win.
Several factors contributed to his victory: the desire for change among the electorate, the anti-Republican mood.
But less widely known are the behind-the-scenes decisions of a novice candidate with unusual confidence and a fierce protectiveness of what he viewed as his relationship with voters.
Patrick declined to follow the playbook that typically defines an underdog's candidacy - the aggressive pursuit of media coverage at almost any cost, the attempt to get attention from more established candidates - and elevate one's own profile - by criticizing them.
Instead, he built a separate and devoted audience for himself, using the Internet, beginning in 2005 with the scant remnants of the Robert Reich 2002 gubernatorial campaign and eventually expanding to every corner of the state.
And when opportunities arose for more traditional headline grabbing, he took a pass and focused on retaining and building the online audience.
Last January, when Attorney general Thomas F. Reilly, then the front runner in the primary election, was struggling over reports that he had contacted a district attorney in a Southborough drunken driving case, Patrick's advisors discussed whether he should criticize Reilly - as Healey and Governor Mitt Romney were doing at the time. Healey and Romney elevated the issue with claims that Reilly was trying to stifle the investigation of the case.
Patrick stayed on the sidelines.
In June, when the Legislature moved to give a retired dying legislator special pension benefits, Patrick was restrained in his comments. Reilly, under pressure to show independence from Beacon Hill, sharply criticized the move, angering some lawmakers close to Ruane.
"Deval was clear that he didn't support that pension, but we chose not to go overboard," said Doug Rubin, his senior strategist. "He didn't want to use it as a political football. It was not fair to score political points on the back of this state representative and his widow.... It is not who Deval is."
The basic strategy, Rubin said, was for Patrick to focus on allowing voters to get to know him, and blocking out the rest. The online network helped create enthusiasm and generate donations. But it also created an infrastructure so that "meet Deval" events could be set up all over the state. And the fervent online supporters persuaded their friends and neighbors to show up, so that unlike many first-time candidates, Patrick would arrive in a small town and be greeted not by a few dozen people, but by hundreds.
There were anxious times too. In July and August, Patrick and his aides watched anxiously as Reilly and his other Democratic opponent, Chris Gabrieli, flooded the TV airwaves with ads. None attacked Patrick, but they helped Reilly and Gabrieli draw closer to Patrick, who was trying to maintain the modest lead he had established after winning the endorsement of the Democratic convention in June.
Again they sat tight, and husbanded their resources for the final primary push. He never lost his lead.
The decisions became more tense after the Democratic primary, when Patrick was no longer an upstart candidate but the person the Democratic establishment was suddenly relying onto win back the Corner Office after 16 years of GOP rule. Suddenly everyone had advice for him.
The campaign felt most pressured in October, when Healey's crime ads started to have an impact on Patrick's standing in the polls. One focused on Patrick's representation of a cop killer, the other on LaGuer.
Rubin, along with campaign manager John Walsh and pollster Tom Kiley monitored nightly tracking polls. They agreed to air an ad criticizing the Romney/Healey administration for property tax increases, but would not directly attack her personally or go near her husband's tax break.
And they went back to what had worked for them: stroking their Internet-based network of supporters, convincing them Patrick was being unfairly maligned, and urging them to spread that word to people in their family, workplaces, social circles and neighborhoods.
"We had an intense amount of communications with our supporters that week," Rubin recalled. "We basically empowered them to go back to their sphere of influences and neighbors to say these are just scare tactics. And (the ads do not represent) Deval Patrick. It was trusting the grass roots to deliver the message."
By then, his aides say, the Internet-driven operation could reach 400,000 to 500,000 field volunteers, supporters, and potential supporters with one e-mail blast. Their own e-mail list totaled more than 40,000, aides said, and they estimated that each e-mail they sent out got passed onto at least 10 people.
When troubles roiled the Patrick candidacy, the campaign could directly communicate to the network, sending messages, videos, tributes and any other news they thought would counteract any negative images.
For the general election yesterday, the campaign set that organization into motion again, putting 20,000 volunteers to work, and stationing people at more than 90 percent of the polling places in the state. They far outnumbered the Republican presence on the ground.
The connection that Patrick forged with supporters had blossomed into the most powerful political organization to sprout up in Massachusetts in a quarter-century. And he had made it fully-wired and fully modern, bringing a new immediacy and broader reach to grassroots politics.
"No rational person would have predicted the kind of exponential growth that he created in key points in the campaign," said Jack Corrigan, a longtime Massachusetts Democratic strategist and informal advisor to Patrick. "He made people believe in him and the politics he was offering."