In a tough year for Democrats, the political fate of Obama pal Deval Patrick is on the line in his bid for a second term as Massachusetts' governor.
His popularity already battered by a series of gaffes and the state's economic woes, Patrick found himself jolted again in January by Republican Scott Brown's victory in the race for the late Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat amid voter anger at Democrats in Washington and the Statehouse.
Now his re-election may hinge on the odd dynamics of a three-way contest and the presence of a former Democrat in the field.
When state Treasurer Timothy Cahill decided last year to bolt from the Democratic Party and launch an independent bid for governor, party faithful accused him of trying to leapfrog a potentially costly primary. But with polls now showing Patrick holding a narrow lead over Cahill and Republican candidate and former health insurance CEO Charles Baker, it's the GOP that's crying foul.
The Cahill factor is infuriating the state's beleaguered Republicans, who hoped Brown's win over Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley would signal the start of a comeback year in a state where Democrats hold every statewide seat and overwhelming majorities in the Legislature.
A poll released Monday is stoking Republican fears. It showed just 34 percent of likely voters support Patrick — sobering numbers for any incumbent — but 29 percent favor Cahill and 27 percent support Baker.
Republicans worry the survey, by the Western New England College Polling Institute, shows Cahill and Baker splitting the anti-Patrick vote, and they are convinced Baker would be pulling away from Patrick if it weren't for Cahill.
Patrick said he's unfazed by the polls.
"I'm not focused on the other candidates and their campaigns. I'm focused on what we have to do," he said. "What we have to do is to continue successfully governing through a crisis."
The key to success for any statewide candidate in Massachusetts is to appeal to the majority of voters — just over half — not enrolled in either major party. Running as an independent could make that easier by liberating a candidate from a party platform, Republican consultant Meredith Warren said.
"It could be very freeing not to be held down by the trappings of a party," she said.
Cahill hopes to scoop up votes wherever he can before the Nov. 2 general election. In just the past week, he crashed a tea party rally on Boston Common and shook hands outside the Massachusetts Republican Party convention in Worcester. When Democrats gather in June, Cahill said, he plans to show up there, too.
"I don't know what they were saying behind my back, but to my face they were very cordial," Cahill said of the GOP gathering. "I'm an independent, and I think my message resonates with Republicans as well as conservative Democrats."
Inside the convention hall, where Cahill was viewed as the ultimate political spoiler, he got a frostier reception.
"If you believe state government doesn't need serious reform, but more patronage and insider deals, then vote for Tim Cahill," Baker told the crowd of about 3,000 party faithful.
Patrick was a lot less critical, saying if Cahill wants to stop by the Democratic convention, that's fine with him.
"We're a big tent. And if that's where he's going to be, then power to him," Patrick said.
Patrick has not only made difficult budget cuts and unpopular tax hikes in response to plummeting revenues, he's also had to deal with self-inflicted wounds — from his decision to upgrade his state-issued Ford sedan with a Cadillac to his aborted attempt to place an early political supporter in a pricey state job.
He faces a fundraising gap, too, prompting a visit by President Barack Obama earlier this month to help raise cash for Massachusetts Democrats. Patrick has about $900,000, compared to Baker's $2 million and about $3.5 million for Cahill.
Patrick has become one of the main cheerleaders for the state's landmark 2006 health care law, which polls have shown remains popular among residents and provided the model for the contentious national bill signed by Obama.
Cahill has cast himself to the right of Baker and Patrick, warning Congress would "threaten to wipe out the American economy within four years" if it adopted a health care overhaul modeled after Massachusetts' law.
His criticism landed him on national conservative talk shows, where he hoped to tap into the voter dissatisfaction and millions of dollars in campaign donations that propelled Brown.
But Cahill has also had his share of gaffes. His campaign sent fundraising appeals to state lawmakers at their official Statehouse e-mail accounts in an apparent violation of state law — a mistake the campaign blamed on a database glitch.
And last month the Securities and Exchange Commission announced it was investigating a representative of a Texas-based securities firm the SEC said helped win participation in $14 billion in bond deals after raising thousands of dollars for Cahill. Cahill's campaign said it would return any suspect donations.
Cahill's biggest hurdle may be convincing voters his political epiphany is genuine, Democratic political consultant Mary Anne Marsh said.
"You've got to get people to believe you and that you're not someone who just did it out of political convenience to get to the general election," she said.
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