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CAMPAIGN 2010 | HEADLONG DASH TO FINISH

Up and down the ballot, GOP is dreaming big

Barraged for months with attack ads, competing messages from the candidates, dizzying poll numbers, and head-turning news of drama, mutiny, scandal, and sheer silliness on the campaign trail, Massachusetts voters will finally deliver an answer to the question of the political year on Tuesday.

Will the state’s Republicans finally rise from the dead?

Not since 1990, when fiscal and political chaos gripped Beacon Hill, has such potential existed for major Republican gains up and down the ticket. For the first time in years, the party is making spirited challenges for statewide constitutional offices, several of the state’s 10 congressional seats, and in dozens of legislative districts.

In many respects, Tuesday will be a test of whether Scott Brown’s victory in the January election to fill Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat was a fluke, or the beginnings of a more sustained shift.

Leaders in both parties are seeing what they want to see in the run-up to Tuesday’s vote.

“It feels a lot like 1990,’’ said former governor Paul Cellucci, who, as the running mate to William F. Weld that year, was at the forefront of the political upheaval that challenged Democrats’ long-standing grip on state political offices. “The mood definitely favors the Republicans.’’

He added, “I don’t get a sense of any change in the mood since January when Brown won.’’

But US Representative Michael Capuano, the Somerville Democrat who is unopposed this year, predicts that Democrats in Massachusetts may be spared from any tidal wave nationally.

“At the moment, I don’t feel a deep seismic shift coming,’’ he said. ‘’I do think the typical sea of blue will be one shade lighter, but there will not be any major shift.’’

However the results break this week, one thing seems clear: Interest in the election is high. Indeed, there are signs that overall turnout may surge.

The number of absentee ballots cast has already reached 130,000, according to Secretary of State William F. Galvin. That is higher than the Jan. 19 special Senate election, when 107,000 voters cast absentee ballots. In that race, voter turnout reached 2.3 million, well above the average of 2.2 million for gubernatorial races over the last two decades.

Unlike the January election, however, Democrats can take some comfort in the fact that absentee voting is running strong in Democratic-leaning cities and towns such as Cambridge, Brookline, and New Bedford. Republicans enthusiasm remains high, however, as indicated by absentee ballot activity in GOP strongholds.

The most closely watched race is the fierce, unusual four-way contest for governor, with polls showing Governor Deval Patrick holding a narrow lead over Republican rival Charles D. Baker. By all accounts, voter turnout will be key to the race. Analysts point to polls showing that Republicans are excited and eager to get to the polls, while many Democrats are dispirited, indicating they may sit out the election. But Patrick and the Democrats are counting on a robust ground operation will bring their supporters out.

Another variable is what happens to the bloc of supporters behind Democrat-turned-independent Timothy P. Cahill, who is running a distant third. If his supporters stay with him until the end, Republicans fear they will hand Patrick a second term. If they break for the GOP, it could put Baker over the edge.

Maurice T. Cunningham, a political science professor at University of Massachusetts Boston, said that while national trends do not favor Democrats, the fact that polls continue to show Patrick holding a slim edge is a signal that the state may not see a major upheaval.

“Massachusetts is a state that is deeply uneasy, but maybe less uneasy and therefore less likely to have a throw-the-bums-out election,’’ Cunningham said.

Cunningham said that Patrick and other Democratic incumbents have been able to point to several key economic indicators — such as job gains and positive signs about the business climate — to undercut some of the attacks by Baker and the Republicans.

Emblematic of the churn this year is US Representative Barney Frank’s fight to keep his seat in the Fourth Congressional District. Once a highly popular figure who has never been seriously challenged in nearly three decades, the national liberal icon is facing a tough battle with Republican Sean Bielat, who has never run for public office. Seven of Frank’s colleagues are facing GOP opponents, including some who have a legitimate shot at an upset.

Republicans also hope to make gains in other statewide contests, including in the treasurer’s race, in which their nominee, state Representative Karyn Polito of Shrewsbury, is facing Steve Grossman, a Newton businessman long active in the Democratic Party. The GOP also has a good shot at capturing the state auditor’s office, which Democrats have held for almost 50 years. Mary Z. Connaughton, the Republican contender, is running even with Democrat Suzanne Bump.

If anything, the 2010 campaign has been entertaining — and at times downright bizarre.

Cahill saw his national GOP operatives and his running mate, former state representative Paul Loscocco, desert him after his poll numbers dipped. Cahill then filed a lawsuit rich with accusations of back-stabbing and political intrigue.

The races for Congress had their fair share of drama, too.

In the 10th district, state Representative Jeffrey D. Perry has been forced to contend with a damaging episode from his service as a Wareham police sergeant in the 1990s, when an officer under his command illegally strip-searched two teenage girls. Perry was never charged, but he has come under fire for his actions in both cases, and for his conflicting statements about them.

The allegations were documented in lawsuits and police files, but Perry, whose candidacy has strong appeal among Tea Party supporters, went on to trounce his primary opponent, Joseph D. Malone, a well-established GOP figure, and is now running neck and neck with Democrat William R. Keating, the Norfolk district attorney.

In the North Shore congressional district, Republicans nominated Bill Hudak, a Boxford lawyer who had promoted the idea that President Obama was not born in the United States and displayed a sign in his front lawn in 2008, portraying the president as Osama bin Laden.

Hudak’s prospects seemed to brighten, though, after incumbent US Representative John Tierney’s wife pleaded guilty to managing a bank account that her brother allegedly used to deposit millions of dollars in illegal gambling profits from an offshore betting operation.

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.  

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